Advent: Counting It All Joy When Christmas Hurts

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Advent is the season we look forward to the coming of Jesus — His birth as our Savior, and His eventual return as our reigning King. But in the context of our daily suffering, Advent also helps us to keep our eyes on Jesus as we place our hope in Him for our future understanding of our present hurt.

We’ve all read the exhortation of James to “count it all joy when you encounter trials of many kinds” (James 1:2) and wondered, “But, how? And if I can’t seem to ‘count the joy’ in the midst of my hurting, is there something wrong with my faith? What kind of Christian does that make me?”

It occurred to me recently that as humans, we are bound by the limits of our finite thinking. We seem to think there is some sort of expiration on our opportunity to give praise for a situation. But we often need the gift of retrospect to be able to see the good work of God in hard times.

So even if it takes the passing of time and a new perspective to be able to praise God for your trial, don’t let that moment pass you by! PRAISE HIM STILL. It’s not too late. You didn’t miss your opportunity. Because here’s the mystery of it all: We serve a God who transcends time (Hebrews 13:8). Therefore, it is never too late to count it all joy. 

If you are in a season of suffering, do not heap additional guilt on yourself if you’re having trouble praising Him for your trial while in the depths of your pain. That condemnation is not from God (Romans 8:1). But DO keep taking daily steps forward in your faith (Hebrews 11:1), believing God is good and righteous and loving and kind and that one day, you will be able to truly praise Him for this season. You will. He promises you will.

Christmastime can be an extraordinarily painful time of year for those who have been enduring a season of suffering. Indeed, there are no twinkling lights in the Valley of the Shadow. But the whole point of Advent is to give us hope for the future. So this year, let Advent lovingly cradle your downcast, tear-stained face in both hands, and gently lift your eyes back toward heaven. There is hope for the future there.

Merry Christmas.

Psalm 119:73-80 — The Fellowship of Scripture in Suffering

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photo credit: Dainis Derics | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Psalm 119:73-80

73 Your hands made me and formed me;
give me understanding to learn your commands.
74 May those who fear you rejoice when they see me,
for I have put my hope in your word.
75 I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
76 May your unfailing love be my comfort,
according to your promise to your servant.
77 Let your compassion come to me that I may live,
for your law is my delight.
78 May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause;
but I will meditate on your precepts.
79 May those who fear you turn to me,
those who understand your statutes.
80 May I wholeheartedly follow your decrees,
that I may not be put to shame.

Spend any amount of time in the Psalms and you will quickly identify a theme of suffering. Indeed, the Psalms tell us much about how to suffer well. I wish I could tell you that on this topic they reveal exhortations to hang out with friends, lay on the beach, stay in bed for hours on end, binge-watch Netflix, or drown our sorrows in a favorite food or beverage. But those tend to be our (sometimes unhealthy) responses to suffering, not God’s.

And why is that? Because our typical human responses tend to point us to more of ourselves, which may result in a temporary “forgetting” of our trouble, but ultimately leave us more empty on the other side. Instead, the Psalms point us to more of Jesus and result in a spiritual “filling up,” which enables us to persevere through life’s trials in peace, and even joy.

(Side note: Next time you read through the Psalms, notice how even the literary structure follows this revelatory pattern: The Psalmist often begins his writing in despair, intensely focused on himself and his circumstances. But by the end, he is exalting glory and honor and praise of God’s goodness and love and faithfulness, which results in words of hope, peace, and joy – even though the Psalmist’s suffering continues. This is an instructive model!)

Here’s a bit of personal context on how I come to these verses in particular: As someone who values the comfort and support of my family and close friendships, I found a recent season of suffering even more difficult when my family and I were required to relocate to a new state for a job change. It was during this time that we were also thrust deep into a family crisis, which sent me into a season of depression, anxiety, and heartache unlike anything I had ever experienced.

God had led us out into the deep and I felt excruciatingly alone — separated by hundreds of miles from my family, friends, and church home. It was in this season that God took me through Psalm 119 and showed me that even though my instinct in suffering is to run to my closest confidants, His Word directs me to run to Him. Indeed, it is the fellowship of Scripture that leads to hope, peace, and joy in the midst of suffering.

Notice in this passage how every verse points us to Scripture:

  • Your commands (v73)
  • Your word (v74)
  • Your laws (v75)
  • Your promise (v76)
  • Your law (v77)
  • Your precepts (v78)
  • Your statutes (v79)
  • Your decrees (v80)

And how this fellowship of Scripture leads us specifically to:

  • Understanding (v73)
  • Hope (v74)
  • Faithfulness (v75)
  • Comfort (v76)
  • Delight (v77)
  • Focus (v78)
  • Confidence (v80)

Isn’t “understanding, hope, faithfulness, comfort, delight, focus, and confidence” what we seek most when we are in the midst of crisis; when we are suffering? We search and stumble and try to conjure up these things on our own. And yet, God’s Word is right here, free for the taking, ready to faithfully guide our steps there, every time. Whether we are called out into the deep all alone, or we are surrounded by friends and family for support, how much sweeter will our trust in Jesus become as we step boldly into the fellowship of Scripture in seasons of suffering.

Lessons

73. Only the Creator can give understanding to the created. God created each one of us and He created Scripture. He knows our needs and He grants us understanding of His Word when we ask Him.

74. When we put our hope in God’s Word, and not in our efforts or abilities or relationships or expected outcomes, then we find joy and peace despite whatever our circumstances. This is one way God uses our suffering to encourage others and to encourage us.

75. God’s law is righteous, and His purposes are holy and just. Therefore, we can trust that even in affliction (suffering), God is faithful to us …

76.(cont’d from 75) … because it is in the hardest of times that we experience His unfailing love for us most profoundly, which He promises us in His Word.

77. We are unable to live apart from God’s compassion on us. He shows us compassion by giving us His Word and enabling us to understand it (see v 73). When we find our delight (our pleasure; our enjoyment) in it and not in the fleeting, temporary thrills and things of this world, then we find life.

78. Those who refuse God’s Word are arrogant — they assert no need for Him — and they will shame us and persecute us without cause. But rather than listen to them and be influenced or persuaded by them, we meditate on Scripture — we keep our focus on Scripture — and we let Scripture guide our every thought, motive, attitude, and action.

79. Although seasons like ours may find us alone in our suffering, we were not meant to stay there long-term. As hard as it may be, reach out. We were designed for community, and in times of suffering, a community of like-minded Believers will be a source of encouragement.

80. Think about what it looks like to observe someone who is pursuing a social cause wholeheartedly. They are sold.out. They read, they learn, they share, they try to convince others to become involved. They can’t get enough. So we must also follow God’s Word wholeheartedly, not picking and choosing the parts we prefer, but reading, learning, sharing … never getting enough. It is only when we follow God wholeheartedly that we can be confident we will “suffer well” according to God’s promises, and in so doing, we will become more like Christ.

Applications

73. Am I actively seeking God to give me understanding of His Word?

74. Am I putting my hope in God’s Word; or in my efforts, relationships and expected outcomes?

75. How have I seen my affliction as an expression of God’s faithfulness?

76. How have I seen God’s unfailing love in my affliction?

77. What is the source of my delight (pleasure; enjoyment)?

78. How am I yet arrogant to God’s Word? Where might I be refusing Him? And when others shame me for His sake, what is my response? Where do I turn?

79. Am I actively part of a community of Believers? If not, why?

80. Am I following God’s Word wholeheartedly? What evidence is there of my passion for His Word? How has God’s Word equipped me for a season of suffering? How does my suffering make me more like Christ?

Did Jesus Come to Save The Good Girls Too?

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We read in the Bible about Jesus and how he brought about radical life transformation in the form of:

  • Damascus Road conversions
  • Thief-on-the cross forgiveness
  • Mary Magdalene sacrifical devotion
  • Woman-at-the-well contagious discipleship

But what about those of us who grew up in a Christian home (or more generically, a “religious” home), a stable family, have never rebelled, are rule-followers, and always do the “right” thing. When we read the Bible, we may not “see ourselves” in the lives that Jesus touched, so how do we know we need Jesus? Did Jesus come to save us too?

Filthy Rags

First and foremost, it is imperative for us to know that no matter how “good” the Good Girls are, our “good works” are not good enough to earn our place in God’s presence. Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” And in case you’re a predominantly New Testament girl, Paul confirms this in Romans 3:10 saying, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” So, to Jesus, our outer “goodness” — the “righteousness” of our own striving — does not meet the standard of a Holy God. Apart from Jesus, our “goodness” is still like filthy rags. Our propensity for sin may look different than the rebellious girl next door, but our sin-stained souls are no different to God.

“God Has No Grandchildren”

As a Good Girl, our Christian upbringing is most definitely a blessing to us, but it will not save us from eternity in hell if we do not claim this faith for ourselves. Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” And Romans 14:12 says, “Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.” Jesus himself said, “’Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24). There are many other Scriptures that point to our individual need to respond to God in faith. These are only a few.

Having worked on Anne Graham Lotz’s ministry team, I heard her say on numerous occasions, “God has no grandchildren.” Can you imagine being the daughter of THE Reverend Dr. Billy Graham? Talk about spiritual coattails! And yet, Anne will be the first one to tell you that if she were to try to stand in the shadow of her father on Judgment Day, she would be denied a place in heaven. God has no grandchildren. No matter how “good” or religious or spiritual or Christian of a family we come from, at some point, we must make our own decision to follow Christ. Our parents’ faith will not save us.

Rule Followers

It is easy for us “Good Girls” to mistake our “rule following” for Christian-living, when it may be more akin to Pharisaical legalism or self-reliance. Jesus said to the Pharisees: “‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (Luke 11:39). Jesus goes on in this passage to warn the Pharisees repeatedly of presenting an outer “good” image, when the reality of their hearts was sinful.

This can be tricky for a Good Girl. Because, it’s not the good deeds and “rule following” in and of themselves that are wrong. As Christians, good deeds are required! In fact, James says clearly that faith without good deeds is dead (James 2:14-26). In that context, good works that are done in response to Christ’s transformation of our heart are evidence of our faith.

But this should not be confused with trusting in our own Good Girl rule following and “good works” as the means of our salvation. Scripture is abundantly clear that all the rule following and good works we can muster will not save us. Our eternal salvation is only secured by God’s mercy and grace through faith in Jesus (Titus 3:4-6).

This is a danger of living the Good Girl life because “being good” is easy for us to do, even if, in reality, our hearts are not close to the Lord. As a Good Girl, this will likely be something we need to watch for, and perhaps repent from, daily.

Old Nature, New Nature

It is our “nature” to be a Good Girl, but when we are saved, God commands us to put off our old nature, and put on our new nature. This can be tough for us Good Girls because we may not think we need a radical lifestyle transformation. We keep on doing the “new self” Good Girl things, which look an awful lot on the outside like the “old self” Good Girl things. But that is the key: the kind of “old self-new self” transformation Jesus works in us originates from the inside-out; not from the outside-in (Ephesians 4:22-24 and Romans 12:2). We may not need a radical lifestyle transformation, but we very well may need a radical heart transformation.

When we reflect on the true nature of our heart, us Good Girls might especially find sin lurking there in the form of pride or selfishness or resentment or greediness or self-reliance or idolatry. It’s easy to “hide” these sins, masterfully masked by our Good Girl exteriors. But do not be fooled that these sins of the heart are any less destructive than sins of the flesh. The heart is the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23) and eventually, our life will reflect what we keep there. When sin lurks in the heart, it inevitably begins a slow rot unto death of friendships, of marriage, of commitment, of life.  As David confronted his own sin, he knew the only path to a transformed life was through this heart, so he prayed: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

Good Girls Need Jesus Too

In case you’re confused, let me be clear: Being a Good Girl is good. It truly is. We probably saved our parents a lot worry and grief; we tend to bless those around us; we typically don’t bring external destruction to our world. But we must be equally clear that those are benefits of being a Good Girl in this life.  All through Scripture, God shows us that His primary concern is with our eternal life, which is determined by the state of our heart. For our life in eternity (which, incidentally, drastically impacts our life here on earth also, but that’s a post for another day) we cannot depend on our upbringing, or rely on our good deeds, or look to the “goodness” of our outer self. But rather, we look to the inside. Because on the inside, “Good Girls” look like everyone else (Romans 3:23). We have a heart stained by sin, unacceptable to a holy God. The only hope for a Good Girl — for all of us — is Jesus. If we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, then we will be saved (Romans 10:9-10).

Yes, Good Girls need Jesus too. We all need Jesus

“Do Not Be Afraid”

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Eighty-one times throughout Scripture — from Genesis to Revelation — God says, “Do not be afraid.” [1]

Eighty-one times.

Why? What is it about fear that is so important for us to overcome that God would say to us eighty-one times?

I decided to examine each of the instances in which this phrase appears in Scripture. In doing so, I came to this conclusion:

It is important to God that we not fear because God — the One who created us — who wired our minds and our emotions — knows that the root of our fear is doubt.

Let me say that again: The root of fear is doubt.

This is our life experience from when we are very young.

When we are very little and we’ve been tucked in bed at night:

It’s dark. “Mama, are you still there?”

When we are home alone and a strange noise startles us:

What was that noise?  “Is someone there?”

When we are walking through the Valley of the Shadow and it feels like the darkness of life will never end:

Why is this happening to me? “God, are you there?”

The root of fear is doubt.

When we are afraid, we question whether the constants in our life are still there to protect us.  We wonder if we have been abandoned and if we will have the strength or the bravery to confront whatever may lie in wait for us around the corner.

God knows that in our fear, we will doubt. And ultimately, we will doubt Him. We will doubt His goodness. We will doubt His faithfulness. And when we doubt Him, we lose our anchor; we lose the footing on our firm foundation. 

Knowing we need God as our anchor, He exhorts us, “Do not be afraid.” 

But why — why should we trust Him? Why should we not be afraid? 

There is an interesting pattern that emerges when you examine each of these verses (see PDF attachment below):

In nearly every instance that God tell us, “Do not be afraid”, I observed that God does not affirm us in our fear (As in, “Hey, you can do this!” or “You are capable of facing this fear!”).  

No. In nearly every instance of the phrase “Do not be afraid,” God affirms himself [2]:

“Do not be afraid … I am your shield.” (Genesis 15:1)

“Do not be afraid … God has heard you.” (Genesis 21:17)

“Do not be afraid … I am with you.” (Genesis 26:24)

“Do not be afraid … God has come.” (Exodus 20:20)

“Do not be afraid … The LORD himself will fight for you.” (Deuteronomy 3:22)

“Do not be afraid … The LORD your God goes with you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

“Do not be afraid … The LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

“Do not be afraid … The battle is not yours, but God’s.” (2 Chronicles 20:15)

“Do not be afraid … I will save you.” (Isaiah 43:5)

“Do not be afraid … I have come.” (Daniel 10:12)

“Do not be afraid … Jesus said. (Matthew 10:26)

“Do not be afraid … Your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13)

“Do not be afraid … My peace I give you.” (John 14:27)

“Do not be afraid … The Lord is my helper.” (Hebrews 13:6)

“Do not be afraid … I am the First and the Last” (Revelation 1:17)

So, first and foremost: why should we not be afraid? Not because we are capable of conquering our fear on our own, but because God is capable of conquering our fear; because God is for us; and because God is God! 

The next observation I make is that as we trust in God because He is God, He does not expect us to do nothing. He does not expect us to be passive in our troubles. No. In many of these exhortations to not be afraid, once He has affirmed himself, He also gives us a directive to take action. Not just any action, mind you, (since actions we are likely to take in the midst of our fear and doubt often come from our irrational brain center — but specific action that He directs from Scripture:

“Stand firm.” (Yes, standing firm is an action — it requires intentional assertion.) (Exodus 14:13)

“Go up and take possession.” (Deuteronomy 1:21)

“Be strong and courageous.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

“Peace!” (Yes, the exclamation point is there in the verse!) (Judges 6:23)

“Serve the Lord with all your heart.” (1 Samuel 12:20)

“ Settle down; serve…” (2 Kings 25:24)

“Take up your positions; stand firm. Go out and face them.” (2 Chronicles 20:17)

“Be careful; keep calm.” (Isaiah 7:4)

“Lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up!” (Isaiah 40:9)

“Set your mind to gain understanding; humble yourself before the Lord.” (Daniel 10:12)

“Be strong now; be strong.” (Daniel 10:19)

“Let your hands be strong.” (Zechariah 8:13)

“Go and tell.” (Matthew 28:10)

“Keep on speaking.” (Acts 18:9)

“Fall at his feet.” (Revelation 1:17)

“Be faithful.” (Revelation 2:10)

So, quick summary of what we are to do up to this point when we are afraid:

  1. Rest in the affirmation of God
  2. Take Action as He directs it in Scripture

And finally, as part of the pattern God establishes when He tells us to not be afraid, I observe that God often offers a promise:

“I will bless you.” (Genesis 26:24)

“You will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you.” (Exodus 14:13)

“He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

“It will go well with you.” (2 Kings 25:24)

“You will have success.” (1 Chronicles 22:13)

“He will not fail you or forsake you.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

“You will not have to fight this battle; see the deliverance the Lord will give you.” (2 Chronicles 20:17)

“When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” (Proverbs 3:24)

“He who made you will help you.” (Isaiah 44:2)

“You will not be put to shame; you will not be humiliated.” (Isaiah 54:4)

“I will surely save you out of a distant place.” (Jeremiah 46:27)

“You will be a blessing.” (Zechariah 8:13)

“The pastures in the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.” (Joel 2:21-22

(I love that last one in particular, because it is such a vivid word picture that even when we’ve been in an extended season of “winter”, a new season of life and growth and rebirth is coming! It’s not a “maybe” — it’s a promise!)

These promises are comforting, but know this: A promise is not received until you take it for yourself. God gives these promises to those who put their trust in Him, but you must choose to receive them in faith. And “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

To recap once again: When we are afraid,

    1. Rest in the affirmation of God.
    2. Take Action as He directs it in Scripture.
    3. Receive His promise to you.

One final observation is that in many of the same verses where we are told, “Do not be afraid,” we are also exhorted: “Do not be discouraged”, or “Do not be fainthearted,” or “Do not panic”, or “Do not be dismayed.”

Again, as our Creator, God knows that fear and discouragement are closely linked. In our doubt, we fear. Closely thereafter, we are so likely to also become discouraged — especially in an extended season of fear and doubt.

So, when you are afraid or when you are discouraged: Examine the root of your fear and look for your doubt. Then, follow the pattern God has established in Scripture. As your doubt in the unknown is replaced by confidence in who God is, your fear will also recede.

Rest in the affirmation of God; take the action as He has directed in Scripture; and receive his promise.

Scripture Analysis – PDF: Do Not Be Afraid

Edited to Add: I want to acknowledge the very real existence of PTSD, Panic and Anxiety Disorder, and other mental health struggles related to fear. I am not ashamed to say that I live with both PTSD and Panic and Anxiety. To have a chemical response in your body overcome your physical ability to remain rational is a terrifying experience. It is not a mind-over-matter situation. This post is in no way intended to suggest that. All that said, as part of an overall positive mental health regimen, meditating on God’s goodness, His faithfulness, and His sovereignty has been extremely helpful to me in my life’s journey.  


[1] There are eighty-one instances of “Do not be afraid” in the NIV translation: https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=%22Do+not+be+afraid%22&qs_version=NIV&limit=100. For the purpose of my study, I selected 72 of the 81 verses where this phrase appears. The PDF attachment above shows my analysis.

[2] These are only a few selections. See attachment for the full list of affirmations, directives, and promises.