Trusting God When Overwhelmed
2 Cor. 4:7-11
For a guy who knew how to throw a party, so to speak, who would have guessed that he would have as much trouble in life as he did?
I am talking about Paul. Paul, the eternal optimist, the great encourager and cheerleader of so many others and yet facing so many of his own struggles and challenges.
Judging by the tone of most of his writings you would have thought that his was a sunny disposition, and that his was an easy life.
Yet some of his most inspiring letters were written in some of the worst places on earth and the darkest prison dungeons of his time.
These amazing letters of his were forged in the crucible of some of the most severe trials and tribulations imaginable.
Such was his life. Already at the beginning of his spiritual journey, the Lord made it clear the kind of life Paul was to lead:
“This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9:15-16
True to his word, trouble began for Paul soon after. As early as on one of the first trips, Luke records how the leading people of a particular area where he was: “stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.” Acts 13:50
And it only went south from there!
As mentioned, most of his ministry was done from a prison cell and some of his most inspiring writings were within that context.
I can’t help but wonder what impact conflicts and trials had on his life?
We tend to look at trials and conflict as negative things; something to be avoided or at best to be endured; something that you hunker down to and hope it blows over fast.
So how was this life of trial for Paul? If some of his best writings were done at some of his lowest moments, would those letters have been penned?
The only reason this world knows about Paul was because of his writings. Would his writings have made the bestseller list had they not been forged in the crucible of struggles and suffering?
I somehow doubt that Paul would have become the giant that he is, had it not been for his prison experiences. His trials made him the man we love and respect so much.
1. Trials Shape Character
Which brings me to a question and that is: ‘What is the interplay between the crucible of trials and the people we become?’
If Paul’s trials made the man, so to speak, can trials do the same for us?
Can character be forged in the struggles of life? That’s the question!
You bet it can. Consider for a moment what Paul wrote to Timothy:
“10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”
2 Tim. 3:10, 11
A couple of things are being said here:
First of all, the link is made between Paul’s sufferings and the quality of the faith he lived out.
Look at how his faith was lived out in front of people like Timothy. He says that Timothy knew all about Paul’s way of life characterized by “purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance.”
Amazing qualities and strong characteristics! This was Paul’s way of life! This was who Paul was. This defined the man.
These qualities didn’t just come to him out of nowhere nor were these gifts bestowed from heaven. These were the result of what he says in the next breath in vs. 11 when he talks about his suffering and talks about “what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured.”
Paul’s character was forged in the crucible of suffering!
Trials can make or break you. They can make you fall apart, make you give up the ghost and run for the hills, or they can forge character and create in you an inner resolve and strength you never thought you had.
Secondly, notice the kind of character forged in the crucible of suffering. “Purpose, faithfulness, patience, love and endurance” began to emerge and rise to the surface in Paul’s life.
There is a unique character forged in the struggles of life that only those who are facing trials can realize. A life characterized by purpose, faithfulness, patience, love and endurance:
Purpose – a commitment to God’s purposes and God’s plans in all of life. Paul became a man of singular purpose!
Faith – loyalty toward the Christian faith; no compromise, taking a stand. Paul became a man known for his unwavering faithfulness.
Patience – patience and gentleness toward his oppressors. Paul epitomized what it meant to be a gentleman.
Love – selfless, steadfast commitment toward the greater good of others. Paul became a man of love and compassion toward foe and friend.
Endurance – long suffering in the trials that befell him. Paul becomes a man of great endurance and ‘stick-to-it-ness’.
These were characteristics forged in prison and these were what made the man great!
Which is why, thirdly, Paul’s life was an incredible inspiration to countless others such as young Timothy.
Paul says: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life.”
I love how Kenneth Wuest translates this:
“But as for you Timothy, you were attracted as a disciple to me because of my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, longsuffering, divine and self-sacrificial love, patience.”
Back to this idea from last Sunday of the circle of life pointing to the interconnectedness of what happens to us. None of us are islands. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Others constantly observe and watch us.
As we respond with the emergence of a godly character forged in the crucible of suffering, it will inspire those who come behind us and watch our lives closely.
So first of all trials forge our character!
2. Trials Keep us Honest
Then secondly, trials keep us honest! They have a way of bringing us to our knees like little else and they create a reliance on God found nowhere else.
That was another one of Paul’s great lessons learned first hand in prison.
Paul in many ways was a spark plug. He was an apostle, which was another way of saying he was an entrepreneur, a visionary and a go-getter. Nothing would stand in his way. If his mind was made up, he did it.
No doubt much of what was accomplished was because of Paul the man.
But even great people need to come to the end of themselves if they hope to be exceptional.
In Paul’s case one of the ways that was done was by being in prison.
“8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.” 2 Cor. 1:8-10
He is writing at a time in his life when he was not only in prison but on death row (“we felt we had received the sentence of death”). It doesn’t get more final and bleaker than that.
There is no exit and no escape. It was absolutely desperate. In fact, Paul uses the rarely used word “despaired” (“so that we despaired of life itself”), which implies the complete absence of an escape.
There was no way out. This was literally hopeless.
“Paul indicated a burden that was excessive and beyond his ability to endure.” Kay Arthur
Somehow this was turned around for him. Somehow God made a way where there was no way, which is why Paul wrote: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”
And the dead might as well have been raised! To be released from death row might as well be the dead raised.
“In the wake of this trying experience that was tantamount to death there followed a further experience that was tantamount to resurrection. Only divine intervention enabled him to retreat from the portals of death to realm of the living.” Murray Harris
None of this was Paul’s doing anymore than Peter’s miraculous escape from his prison was his doing. An angel of the Lord released Peter from prison and for all we know the same thing could have happened here.
What this did for Paul,though, was keep him honest!
Trials have a way of taking your power away and reducing you to a level of dependence where unless God makes a way there is no way.
That’s the place where we see the hand of God most often. That’s the place where God not only gives grace to the weak but also opens prison doors.
The place of the “I can’t” which is also the place of the “God can”! For Paul it meant his utter reliance on God as Murray Harris wrote:
“All of this undermined Paul’s self confidence and compelled his utter dependence on a God who raised the dead and therefore can rescue the dying from the grip of death.”
Not a bad place to be! Trials keep us honest about our limitations.
3. Trial’s Path to God’s Strength
Not only do trials shape our character and keep us honest, but they are also the path to God’s strength.
Again from the same writings of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Cor. 12:9-10
Who would have thought that an entrepreneur and sparkplug like Paul would talk like this.
“I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses” and “I delight in weaknesses” is not the normal language of success nor will such talk make the front cover of Time’s all time best seller list.
Some would say that this is the result of having been beaten down. This is what you get when in prison long enough. This is what happens to you if you have known nothing but hardship.
They would point to Paul’s experience descriptors; words such as weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties that you find in the passage as evidence of a defeated man.
They would say that you have to lean into your strength instead of embracing your weakness, as Paul seems to do here.
While it’s true that Paul is leaning into his weakness, it’s not as a defeated beaten down man but as someone who understood the spiritual principle of “when I am weak, then I am strong” and understood God’s Word that says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
You see, where the end of self meets the beginning of God you find the place called God’s grace and the world beyond God’s grace can only be described as God’s power!
“God divinely enables us with a strength that is continually sufficient to overcome our weaknesses. In His grace we receive the power to do what we cannot do ourselves. But first we must recognize our weakness, submit ourselves to God, and put our trust in him.” Kay Arthur
Recognizing your weakness happens most often during times of trials.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So, not only do trials shape our character, keep us honest before God and serve as the path to God’s strength but trials also have a limited reach.
4. Trial’s Limited Reach
Take a look at II Cor. 4:7-11
“7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”
There is a limit to what trials can do! We are neither at their mercy nor at their whim; they can go so far but no further.
Just like with the story of Job, when asking permission to send trials Job’s way, the adversary was told, “everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Job 1:12
So also trials have their limitations of what they can and cannot do!
So, while “we may be hard pressed on every side but we are not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Cor. 4:8-9
“Paul was hard pressed on every side but not completely cornered or without room for movement, never driven to surrender. He was bewildered but ever at wits end. He was hounded by the foe, but left to his mercy. He was knocked down to the ground, but not permanently grounded.” Murray Harris
In fact, they can touch the jars of human clay but they can never touch the treasure we carry inside those jars!
All of this means we live in the tension between carrying “around in our body the death of Jesus” on the one hand, while on the other hand the reality of “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
2 Cor. 4:10
So cheer up, you are not at the mercy of the enemy; you are at the mercy of God. Thus far, but no further!
“And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” I Cor. 10:13
Did you notice that the way out is not the way of escape necessarily but the way of endurance?
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor. 12:9
So, not only do trials shape our character, keep us honest before God, serve as the path to God’s strength and have a limited reach, but also finally, trials never negate the love of God!
5. Trials and the Love of God
It’s easy to doubt the love of God when in a fiery furnace. It’s easy to assume that God doesn’t love me when life crushes you.
If you have ever been at that place then you can draw comfort from Paul’s testimonial where he was able to declare, not from the safety of an ivory tower but from a rotting prison cell, that nothing will separate him from the love of God:
“35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8: 35, 37-39
Friends, we are not merely survivors but conquerors and you know why? Because despite it all, nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ!
Even the sentence of death that Paul carried around did nothing to separate him from the love of Christ.
We Conquer Through Jesus!
Trials far from our destruction, actually shape our character, keep us honest before God, serve as the path to God’s strength, have a limited reach and do nothing to negate the love of God!
How can you not help but be a conqueror in the midst of the crush of life?
“Paul’s life reveals what it means to live victoriously in the midst of suffering and trials. He was excessively burdened beyond his strength, yet he did not trust in himself; he trusted in God. He was afflicted with outward conflicts and inward fears, yet he was comforted by God and by others. He recognized that he was a humanly weak vessel whose power was from God and not from within himself. Paul showed us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and he revealed to us the key to victory: We overwhelmingly conquer through Jesus Christ.” Kay Arthur
Persevering When Things Get Tough
2 Thess. 1:3-8
When Life Is Not A Straight Line
The sign outside says: “What to do when in crisis?” That’s a great question. What do you do when trouble comes? How do you respond when the bottom falls out, or when you are being squeezed from all sides?
I am sure that all of us from time to time have been in trouble and have struggled with barriers in life, opposition from individuals or circumstances, or when things that have simply gone off the rails.
In fact some of you may be facing some of these as I speak.
Funny how life turned out, isn’t it? Who would have thought that to get from there to here would have been such a journey?
No one told us that it’s not a straight line from Point A to Point B. Take a look at the image on the screen. I thought it would be a straight line from my birth to this point in life; an easy ride and the shortest distance between two points, right?
Turns out it was anything but! Twists and turns, dips and heights, sharp turns and stretches of long, empty and sometimes even lonely roads.
I have found life to be anything but a straight line nor the shortest distance between two points, but instead full of barriers, trouble, struggles and opposition.
Adding Faith into the Mix
And then the added complication of my faith mixed into the normal twists and turns of life gives this even a further edge.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? While my faith gives me great relief and strength in the twists and turns of life, it is also an added source of additional struggles.
It’s hard enough to maneouvre life with what life throws you but add into that the complexity of what your faith throws you and it creates a whole new set of obstacles to maneouvre.
What I mean is that we live as aliens in this world; this world is not our home and we live at odds with the values of our times. Our allegiance lies elsewhere, our perspective is eternal and our values are vastly different from modern society.
Peter talks about this in I Peter when he calls us foreigners and exiles in this world. He outlines the war against our soul and the accusations and pressures from those who do not serve God as you do.
In fact, the New Testament is full of stories of people in trouble for the stands they took and for their faith. In fact, much of what is said in the Scriptures on this topic has to do with how to live in that reality; how to be victorious in difficult times and balance the tension of when faith clashes with culture.
The Trouble in Thessalonica
Among the most significant letters in the NT on this topic is Paul’s letter to the Christians who lived in the city of Thessalonica.
Thessalonica was no easy place to be a Christian. Vastly outnumbered by those who did not share their beliefs and values, and egged on by the members of the local synagogue, meant believers were facing increasing tension, pressure and significant opposition.
These Christians were a small minority in a place where everyone else marched to a different beat and the result is almost predictable: a clash of values, a collision of cultures, and predictable opposition and trouble.
In the midst of all this Paul provides a perspective for his friends there that helped them endure. That also helps us put our faith based struggles as aliens in a strange land into a proper perspective.
The Interface of Faith and Determination
First of all, there is a correlation between determination to stick it out and one’s faith in God!
“We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” 2 Thess. 1:3-4
It is astonishing that their faith was actually “growing more and more and the love you have for one another is increasing.” vs. 3
Who would have thought such a thing was possible? Would you not have thought that their faith would shrink; that they would hide away (out of sight out of mind) or that others would abandon their faith all together? None of this happened here.
If nothing else, it shows us that difficulties and trials are not the end of faith but can actually be the spark to a stronger faith.
Paul talks about their “perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” vs. 4.
The word “perseverance” actually speaks about endurance or
‘stick-to-it-ness’ in difficult circumstances. When most would run and hide, they stuck it out and endured.
“This word indicates the Thessalonians were not surrendering to their circumstances nor were they running away to get out of the situation.” Kay Arthur
That kind of ‘stick-to-it-ness’ strengthens your resolve; makes you more determined than ever and it adds up to a stronger, more determined faith.
So how does that happen? Notice the role of faith in their ability to persevere and be determined:
“Your faith is growing more and more…therefore, among God’s churches, we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” vss. 3,4
“The Greek word translated as faith in verse 4 means ‘to believe, to be fully persuaded’. In this context is shows that their faith and trust was in God, who enabled them to accept their circumstance and cope with these trials.” Kay Arthur
Their faith was growing more and more to the point where Paul was boasting to others saying that it’s their faith that makes them endure like this.
They became known for their faith that endured when most would pack it in.
It wasn’t just faith for faith’s sake that made them that strong. It isn’t just that people of faith are stronger people as though faith strengthens you.
Instead it’s that faith in God makes God respond by giving those who have faith in Him his strength!
“God gives the believer inner strength to enable them to be steadfast, to patiently wait in the midst of difficult circumstances.” Kay Arthur
This is so important to realize. If you remain determined to serve God even when it’s not convenient nor easy, God will give you an inner strength that will make you be even more resolute to serve Him.
The Circle of Life
So not only does faith in God give you His strength to be more determined than ever, but that faith in God is actually part of a wider circle of life.
What I mean by that is that they were not the only ones; they were not the first ones, nor would they be the last ones.
Notice what Paul says to them in his first letter:
“6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. 2 We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.
14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.”
I Thess. 1:6-7, 2:1-2,14
Did you notice the circle of life? It is a circle, and they were one dot on the circle. Others were there before them and others will be there after them.
Yes, it’s true that they “welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering”, (vs. 6) and how easy it is to think that they are somehow the only ones in the whole earth to face such suffering.
But they were not the first ones nor were they the last ones to suffer so. Others were going through the same thing.
Notice what Paul says to them:
“We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.” 2 Thess. 2:2
Paul and his companions faced similar trials while previously in Philippi as well as in Thessalonica when he brought the gospel to them. They were not the first ones.
Then Paul reminds them of the suffering among God’s churches in Judea:
“For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.” 2 Thess. 2:14
Friend, you are not the only one to face such challenges! It is easy to think I am the only one and that no one knows the trouble I see.
But it ain’t so! Look around you; others in our church are facing similar challenges as you; are also trying to live out their faith in a hostile world.
Not only that but think of all those who came before you and what they had to endure. Did they give up on their faith? No. Did they adopt the values of their day? No. Did they finish well? Yes.
If they did, and if others are, then so can you! Not only will their example inspire you to endure but God will also strengthen you to endure.
That is part of the circle of life where others have come before you. But that’s only half the circle; only one side of the circle.
As much as there are those who have come before you or are beside you right now, and who inspire you with their ability to endure pressure and make you want to endure as well; so also there are those will come after you or are beside you on the other side looking to you to be their inspiration.
On the one hand we follow the examples of others and persevere because they have shown us how to do that: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Thess. 1:6
On the other hand, there are those whom we need to inspire with our endurance and who look to us to be their example: “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” 1 Thess. 1:7
When both happen you have the circle of life; a full circle where
‘what goes around comes around’.
Speaking of what goes around comes around; there is one other way of seeing what goes around comes around.
What Goes Around Comes Around!
Speaking of what goes around comes around; there is one other way of understanding this idea of what goes around comes around.
It has to do with this: Trouble comes on those who trouble you! No one gets away with troubling you. Those who squeeze you, oppose you, persecute you and trouble you because of your faith will one day be troubled by God himself!
Even more so: When their trouble starts, your troubles will be over!
Take a look at this amazing Scripture:
“God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled.” 2 Thess. 1:6
I love that! God will turn the tables. Not only will he trouble those who trouble you but he will remove your trouble from you once and for all!
Relief will come your way; relief, how sweet it is! In case you are wondering when that will happen, notice what Paul says to them next:
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” 2 Thess. 1:6, 7
That great event of his returning, when tables will be turned and troublers will be troubled and the troubled of this life will find relief, is the fuel we have to carry on.
We are living with an eternal perspective in mind!
Do Not Lose Heart!
So, dear friend, do not lose heart! You may be wasting away outwardly but even that won’t last forever; and in the meantime inwardly, because your faith in God is strong, you are being renewed day by day!
That’s what it says:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” 1 Cor. 4:16
In light of eternity and how that will be the great turning of tables, live your day with an eternal perspective in mind. Fix your eyes not on the here and now, but on the then and there.
That’s what it says:
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” I Cor. 4:17-18
We do not lose heart! Our commitment to serve Jesus remains rock solid.
Our light and momentary troubles are nothing to us in light of the joys and rewards of what awaits us!
The Make Up Kiss of Reconciliation
II Cor. 5:19-21
How Sad is Estrangement Between People
Can you so deeply offend someone, hurt them so profoundly, that all sense of friendship, camaraderie and relationship is irreversibly broken and severed?
Absolutely you can, and how heart breaking when that happens!
Perhaps you have even witnessed such a sad occurrence personally; perhaps this has even happened to you or someone close to you.
There is nothing sadder than two friends estranged; nothing worse than marriages dissolving; nothing breaks the heart of a parent more than children no longer talking to each other. How sad when former business partners or parishioners avoid all contact.
It is all too common an occurrence, isn’t it? People who haven’t spoken to each other in years, and probably never will again.
How sad! What a heartbreak that is and, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence.
So we know all about estrangement, relational tension, people not talking to each other and the need for reconciliation.
Sadder Even Is Estrangement Between Us and God
Even sadder is the fact that estrangement and breakdown exists on a far more fundamental level between humanity and God, between the children of God and their Heavenly Father.
There is considerable talk in the Scriptures on the need for reconciliation between the creation and the Creator, and how that was achieved at the foot of the cross.
One of the classic references highlighting this is Romans 5:10, where it’s so bad that we are called enemies of God:
“When we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his son.”
Wait a minute… you mean to tell me that we were God’s enemies? Of course we were! You didn’t know that?
We were at enmity with God; we walked away and turned our backs on God a long, long time ago. The only life we have ever known was the life of estrangement and distance.
You go and ask almost anyone on the street and you will find a general ambivalence toward God. We may be the exception here, but most people in this world have this uneasy connection to God. Try to find Him when you’re in trouble, but otherwise He’s best left alone.
There’s always been this sense of something between humanity and God, a wedge of some sort. There’s an issue between people and God, which is why most people are uneasy about God and have a conflicted relationship.
Paul succinctly captures this malaise when he wrote: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” Col. 1:21
Paul even gives a reason for this strain between God and us: “because of your evil desires”.
A Time of Great Intimacy with God
Funny thing is that it wasn’t always so. The Scriptures record a time and place when there was nothing between God and us; when all was well in this primary relationship, where people had a personal and intimate relationship with God in the here and now, in physical space and time.
So intimate in fact that the Bible speaks of a time when our ancestors, Adam and Eve, “heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Gen 3:8), and heard God call out to them by name.
I would love to know what that sounds like. What does God walking in the Garden sound like? To be that near that you can actually hear God walking is mind-boggling.
While there may be a sense of God nearby and perhaps, at our best moments, we might enjoy his presence spiritually, nothing compares to a type of fellowship with God that is physical, without pretense and in real time and space.
In fact, the opening chapters of Genesis tell the amazing story of how God dwelled among them in a very natural, personal and intimate way; where the sound of God walking in the Garden was as natural as the sound of your friend or partner walking next to you!
This was incredible friendship, incredible intimacy, the likes of which we cannot fathom in this ‘covered up’ world of ours.
This is a covered up world where we tend to hide much, cover up, and pretend to be something that we are not.
Theirs was a time of no cover up, where they were so well known to each other and to God that it says that “the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”
Meaning, no cover up, no pretension, no faking it, nothing hidden but fully known and exposed with no shame.
All of which speaks of a type of relationship and intimacy between God and people on a level that we have never experienced.
We only dream about the kind of intimacy witnessed in those opening verses of the Bible.
The Beginning of the Fig Leaves
Yet all of it ends up shattered and broken, totally and utterly destroyed, so much so that they soon begin to hide away and cover up.
“They sewed fig leaves and made coverings for themselves.” Gen. 3:7
That says everything. Those fig leaves were so much more than just fig leaves. It ushered in the era of the fig leaf, friends; an era in which we still live!
Ours is the era of the fig leaf, where we cover up, duck and hide away, instead of this lost era of nakedness where they were fully known and lived in this innocent, shameless communion with God and each other.
What a sad footnote, that when God walked in the cool of the morning they hid away from him instead of running into his loving arms:
“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Gen 3:8-11
And you know the rest of the story, of course, of how this was the beginning of the estrangement between God and his people; and how at the end of that day they were barred from the place where God walked in the morning, in the cool of the day.
“So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Gen 3:23, 24
Sadly, words such as ‘estrangement’ or ‘alienation’ are far too weak to capture the profound sense of separation that happened.
It wasn’t just that things were strained or awkward but instead a total and complete breakdown of the relationship, where only minimal vague communication was possible.
They were barred from Eden, this place of perfect harmonious relationship, never to return!
One of the more gripping images was that of Adam’s sons trying to make an offering as a way to contact God, who by then was so far removed that the long column of smoke barely reached Him. In fact, one of the son’s offering never did reach God!
What a contrast to the previous time when they were so near that Adam actually heard God’s footsteps in the cool of the morning and heard God’s voice calling out to him.
The Wedge That Drove Us Apart
So what on earth happened between God and Adam and Eve? Great question!
First of all, you need to realize that while with most estrangements there are usually two sides to every coin and usually both parties take some of the pain, in this situation this was not the case.
Whatever it was that happened was on our side. God did not offend us but we offended Him. We did not recoil in pain, He did!
Nothing exists to suggest that God had caused offence. Instead, we have offended God.
So what was it, what is it, that would so offend God that he would completely and utterly withdraw himself?
Of course you know the answer as well as I do. It had everything to do with the introduction of sin.
God had made it very clear what they were not to do:
“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’ ” Gen. 2:16, 17
That was the only prohibition, the only “do not”. It was not meant as a tease or a temptation, but as a constant test of their freedom.
God longed for a relationship based on free will instead of an act of creation. So this tree stood as evidence that mankind had a choice and chose to live in relationship with God.
This became the very focus of Satan’s temptation:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Gen 3:1-7
That singular act of sinful disobedience ushered in such a torrent of sin so that not only were they swept away by it, but every person born since is also born into this reality of sin.
“Sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Rom. 5:12
Wow, that’s pretty extreme for just an act of sin. Folks, we cannot down play the severe consequences of sin. There is something about rebellion, disobedience and defiance that are the very antitheses of God.
Sin is the one and only thing that is God’s trigger point and thus will always get a reaction from God. Not only does he lash out, as we saw in last week’s sermon, but he also recoils from it.
This is why sin can never be trivialized or downplayed. Sin is everything that God is not; it is the polar opposite of God.
If God is the North Star, then sin is the South Star. Polar opposites!
“But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” Isaiah 59:2
How Great the Love of God
Now here is where the wheels fall off the wagon, in the rest of the story. You would think that separation is it, and it’s done and over with.
Not so fast, my friend.
As tragic as this is and, as deeply offended in an extremely personal way as God was, it is astonishing that the very one who was offended would reach out with reconciliation to those who so offended him!
How absurd is the idea that the God who was offended would somehow overcome his offence and reach out to us?
But does it not say?
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:18
Was it not God that reached out to Adam and Eve? The amazing thing is that despite God’s wounded heart still being fresh and raw, He reached out to them: “But the Lord called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ ”
Was it not God, the offended one, who offers up his Son as a way to atone for the offender?
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting man’s sins against him.” II Cor. 5:19
All of that – how absurd is that? Who on earth has ever heard of the offended one, the victim reaching out in reconciliation?
The method of reconciliation was not measured in gold or silver, but in drops of blood from his very own Son: “We were reconciled to him through the death of his son.” Romans 5:10
How outrageously lavish God’s love for us really is; God has reconciled the human race to himself, in that Jesus took the deep offence of our sins upon him.
Jesus removed the sting in God’s wound, allowing God to reach out to us despite what we had done.
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” II Cor. 5:19-21
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us. How easily that is said, and how lightly that rolls off the tongue; but oh the cost of God making Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us!
No nobler words have ever been given to capture the extent of the cost of our reconciliation than from the writings of Isaiah, the Prophet.
Come on, say it with me (let’s stand).
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
This is why Paul said: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” II Cor. 5:20
How absurdly generous God must be! In fact, I love Rom. 5:10 in the Good News version since it says it all:
“And since, when we were his enemies, we were brought back to God by the death of his Son, what blessings he must have for us now that we are his friends and he is living within us!”
What a blessing that we are now his friends and he is living with us!
Look at what his death and resurrection accomplished:
1. The scapegoat that carries away your sins into the desert of God’s forgetfulness, to be remembered no more
2. The currency and coins that paid for your freedom as a slave to sin
3. The lightning rod that took the blow of God’s wrath meant for you
4. The make-up kiss that allowed for you to be fully reconciled with God
All this because God loves you so! Won’t you respond to him today?
Here you can find several messages. Feel free to write your thoughts or questions in the comment section.