There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). God is entirely for us, and never against us. None of our sicknesses is a judgment from a condemning judge. None of our broken cars or failed appliances is a punishment from God. None of our marital strife is a sign of his wrath. None of our lost jobs is a penalty for sin. None of our wayward children is a crack of the whip of God’s retribution. If we are in Christ. No. God is for us, not against, in and through all things — all ease and all pain.
Who Is Against Us?
This means, to say it still another way, “Who is against us?” We are still in verse 31: “If God is for us, who is against us?” The answer Paul expects when he asks that question is, “No one can be against us.” To which we are prone to say, “Really?” What does that mean? Verse 35 says that there will be tribulation and distress and persecution and sword. Verse 36 says that Christians are being killed all day long, they are counted like sheep to be slaughtered. Paul said that. So what does he mean, “Who can be against us?” I think he means no one can be successfully against us.
The devil and sinful men can make you sick, can steal your car, can sow seeds of strife in your marriage, can take away your job, and rob you of your child. But verse 28 says, God works all those things together for your good if you love him. And if they finally work for your good, the designs of the adversary are thwarted and his aim to be against you is turned into a Christ-exalting, soul-sanctifying, faith-deepening, painful benefit. If God is for you, he does not spare you these things. But he designs good where the adversary designs evil (Genesis 50:20; 45:7). The things that are against you he designs to be for you. No one can be successfully against you.
This is one of the most common refrains in my counseling ministry. There are many causes: love unrequited, jobs lost, dreams quashed, spouses and children taken. No matter its roots, the pain is unbearably similar for its sufferers. And the question that hangs over it all is this: “Now what?”
Grief is an act as well as a feeling. When hearts are broken, cheeks should be wet. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. There is something about weeping that is incredibly scary. It’s a vulnerable act that floods our thoughts and feelings, leaving us fatigued. Little wonder then that people avoid it like the plague, or feel that they need to make an excuse for it.
But Scripture itself does not take such a negative view on mourning. God does not tell his children to “dry it up!” Rather, God stores our tears in his bottle (Psalm 56:8). In an ancient, arid land where bottles were not a dime a dozen, only precious things were kept in bottles. Even more, God himself weeps and makes no apology for it (Luke 19:41–44; John 11:35). When God finds his heart hurting, his cheeks are not dry, and you should not be ashamed if yours aren’t either.
It’s not enough to merely give our emotions vent; they need to be shepherded (Psalm 120:1; 130:1). Christians are not merely those who weep, but those who weep well. It is not true that our stress, sadness, anger, and negative emotions just need an emotional outlet to release the pressure. This “hydraulic” view of the affections often does more harm than good — before we know it, we can barely put our emotional kettle on the burner before the whistle begins to wail for relief.
Instead, the key is to marry an emotional outlet with hope. This does notmean that we always, at every single moment, need to sustain a conscious feeling of hope alongside our grief — God makes room in Scripture for passages like Psalm 88 and Job 3. He does not ask the believer to take a Pollyanna view of the believing life. But Paul reminds the Thessalonians that their grief is different from a mere emotional outpour (1 Thessalonians 4:13). It is grounded in the truth of the gospel which is the spring of hope and life itself (Romans 15:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17). Gospel hope is the foundation of healthy grief. We may not always see it or focus on it, but it is there, and it will rise again (Psalm 51:12).
Go to Prayer
Grief needs prayer. It is the communion of our souls with their Maker and Sustainer. The Psalter is not just a collection of ditties for believers but a living example of the prayers of the faithful. Praying isn’t about changing God’s mind but submitting the most earnest desires of our hearts to him, and trusting his stewardship with them, even when those desires are aborted.
Christ calls out through prayer in his most desperate hour (Matthew 26:36–39). And Paul tells us that even when we don’t know how to pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, mending our prayers on the way up (Romans 8:26). There is something about prayer, about giving unto our Lord those thoughts and feelings which are most intimate, that makes our hearts more pliable to the comfort that only the gospel brings.
God loves to hear the raw, unscripted prayers of his children’s hearts (Psalm 62:8). But prayer is more than just an emotional dump. Our prayers are prayers to a God who has revealed himself and provided for us in his word. In grief, our prayers and our souls will benefit by feeding on God’s word.
Meditating on Scripture forces our hearts to move beyond ourselves and think on the grand scope of God’s redemptive work for his people (Colossians 1:13–14). It gives hope where otherwise there may be none (John 14:27; Romans 8:31–39; Hebrews 13:6; James 1:2). It puts our grief in perspective, reminding us that our heartache is but a tiny glimpse of the pain experienced by God at the cross (Matthew 27:46) — a suffering that he entered into willingly (John 10:18), despising the cost of shame for the joy of redeeming a people (Hebrews 12:2).
Go to Rest
Grief is exhausting. Physically and emotionally, we find ourselves worn out. A persistent and terrible fog seems to descend on our minds and bodies making it hard even to breathe at times like these. Those in grief need rest. More than just physical rest (though often no less), we need spiritual rest. It is in these moments that the words of our Lord seem sweeter than honey:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)
Resting in Jesus often means intentionally disengaging from the busyness of the world. Choosing to focus what little emotional energy we have on Kingdom purposes helps provide a peace that mere logic cannot explain (Philippians 4:4–9).
Go to Friends
Grief isn’t private. It’s often difficult and humiliating to let someone in on the depths of our pain, but God loves his people too much to let your suffering begin and end with you. Keeping your grief hidden robs the church of our ability to have the unbelievable joy of Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
All people at all times do not need to be clued into the depth of the darkness in which you find yourself, but allowing others to walk beside you in your time of distress is a way of serving them, while also allowing them to serve you. It’s a reminder that the life of a pilgrim in this fallen world is far from rose-colored and, someday, when the current trial is behind you, the church will get the benefit of witnessing God’s tangible faithfulness to you.
All too often, Satan uses our grief to indulge our desire to isolate, not only personally but corporately. Gathering for worship just feels like a chore too difficult to manage. When we grieve, it may be difficult to sing, pray, or concentrate in worship. It may feel as if the Lord’s Supper is a hollow activity. But worship is the ventilator of our spirits — keeping us alive when all else seems to fail. Bit by bit, even when we don’t appreciate it, worship is consoling our grief and nurturing our souls back to health.
Weep and Draw Near
In a world where sin infects and impacts all things, it is impossible for believers to make it through without hearts that break. But we have a God who is not silent at such times. He knows, because he has walked in our shoes (Hebrews 4:15). He has felt the terrible pangs of a broken heart. And at such times, he does not tell us to shut up and go away, but rather to weep, draw near to him, and rejoice in him.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)
The wider context of Romans says that it would be a mistake if you concluded from this that water baptism is the instrument or the means by which we are united to Christ. In Romans, faith is the means by which we are united to Christ and justified. “Therefore, having been justified by faith . . .” (Romans 5:1). We’re justified in union with the just one. Union with Christ in the book of Romans clearly, powerfully, essentially is wrought through faith.
When you trust Jesus, you’re united to Jesus and when you’re united to him, what he is, he is for you, and what he is is just and righteous and pure and holy. So you become just and righteous and pure and holy in him, and that’s the glory of union with Christ by faith alone. I don’t want to construe these verses in a way that would contradict the main message of the book. We show this faith and we signify it — we symbolize it — in the act of baptism.
“When you trust Jesus, your death is over. That’s the glory of the Christian gospel.”
Here’s an analogy, because this text reads with strong words about things happening in baptism. At a wedding in the old words, we used to say things like, “With this ring, I thee wed.” What did we mean by that? When we say, “With this ring, I thee wed,” we do not mean that putting the ring on the finger makes us married. At least, I don’t mean that when I’m involved in it. No, it shows the covenant. It symbolizes the covenant. But the vows — the covenant vows — make the marriage. So it is with faith and baptism. Faith unites us to Christ. Baptism symbolizes the ring: “With this baptism, I thee wed.” “With this baptism, you are united to Christ,” Paul says.
The point we’re focusing on here is the imagery — death and burial. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism” — with baptism, with this ring. “We were buried therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The imagery of baptism is most fundamentally death, burial, resurrection. By faith, we’re united to him, and thus, as he died, was buried, was raised, we die, are buried, are raised, and we live in him and death is behind us. That’s the glory of the Christian gospel. When you trust Jesus, your death is over.
And death — stinger removed, power removed, gateway to paradise, totally transformed — is hardly worth calling death anymore if you see it this way. We have died with Jesus. Our death died at Calvary. All the judgment of death was taken there.
This weekend marks fifty years since the diving accident that left Joni Eareckson Tada with quadriplegia. Fifty years of relying on others to meet her physical needs. Fifty years of pressing on in the midst of weakness, fatigue, and pain. Fifty years of trusting God to provide.
On July 30, 1967, when she was seventeen years old, Joni was paralyzed from the neck down after she dove into deceptively shallow water in the Chesapeake Bay. The early weeks and months were excruciating, and she despaired of even smiling again. But by God’s grace, fifty years later, she is full of grace and laughter, praising Jesus and counting it all joy.
In her latest devotional, A Spectacle of Glory, Joni shares, “I happened to hear recently the old Beatles classic ‘Here Comes the Sun’ — a song I listened to when I was first injured. It reminded me of the dark, depressing days in the hospital when I thought I would never smile again, would never see the sunlight of hope. And now, nearly fifty years later, I still find myself thinking, how in the world did I ever make it?
“But here I am, living in joyful hope as though it were sunshine. How did that happen? Here’s how: day after day, month after month, year after year, I simply cast myself on Jesus. I clung to his name, crying out constantly, ‘O Jesus!’”
Joni, who lives in joyful hope, as though it were sunshine, has had to endure more than quadriplegia. She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2010. And she lives with crushing chronic pain. To Joni, quadriplegia isn’t a big deal anymore; she’s learned to live with that. But the pain is hard to get used to, as it invades her life every day.
The Worst Part
This week I had the privilege of speaking with Ama Cruz, who helps serve Joni and her husband Ken in their home. Every morning someone arrives from her wake-up crew, affectionately known as her “Get-Up Girls.” They get her ready regardless of whether Joni has slept well or not, whether she’s in agony or not, whether she wants to get up or not. Because she relies on helpers who are scheduled in advance, Joni doesn’t have the luxury of changing her mind at the last minute. Joni can’t hit the snooze alarm and decide she wants a little more sleep.
Even when Joni is exhausted, she continues to persevere. As she prays in her devotional, “Lord Jesus, sometimes I think my worst enemy is just being so tired — tired of the physical hassles, tired of the pain, tired of fighting off the whispers and mockery of the enemy. My stamina is almost gone and my tank is almost empty. Come quickly to my side. Be the strength and song I can’t pull together on my own.”
“I Cannot Do This”
Joni once commented in an interview, “As a quadriplegic, I wake up in the morning and it’s hard. It is so hard having somebody else come into your bedroom [to brush your teeth and your hair]. It’s overwhelming at times. During those times, I say, ‘Lord God, I cannot do this, but I can do all things through you as you strengthen me.’”
Those who serve Joni can attest to the fact that Christ is her strength. Ama Cruz says, “She doesn’t rant or grumble even though she is immersed in chronic pain and cannot use her body. Suffering is her constant companion, yet the Spirit of God is her comforter so she is always gracious. This is an act of the Holy Spirit.”
Responding to Suffering
Joni sees that her response to suffering matters. She says, “In your natural self, you might complain about your routine or difficulties. In God’s strength, however, you bite your tongue and refuse to grumble, because you recognize God in those very situations” (Spectacle). She goes on to say, “I want [God] to gain glory through the way I live out this ‘normal’ day . . . that people would see a difference between the way I would naturally respond and the way [God] enables me to respond by [his] Spirit. May people who observe my life see that gap and give the credit to [God].”
Joni doesn’t want any credit for herself. She wants it all to go to Jesus, and she encourages believers not to take the credit for strength in the midst of trials. Joni says, “Yes, we may show flashes of great strength in dark and desperate times — but it’s not our strength. For those who battle daily with chronic pain or physical disabilities, the reminders of our weakness are even more stark; we can never really forget how powerless we are. But that’s good!”
Joni, along with countless disabled people and their families around the world, lives with a breathtaking dependence on Jesus and a supernatural sense of God’s presence. Joni says,
I wish I could adequately describe what it’s like when I’m aware of the overwhelming presence and power of God’s grace in my life. It’s like “living above” my wheelchair in a strata of heart-splitting joy that comes with God-breathed courage to tackle whatever lies ahead! Frankly, I believe that the more aware you are of God’s grace, the more joy and courage you will have. This raises the question: when are we most aware of God’s grace? It isn’t when we are riding high with the string of green lights and open doors before us. No, it’s when we are needy and feeling spiritually impoverished.
Heart-splitting joy, God-breathed courage, the overwhelming presence and power of God — what a spectacular testimony to God’s grace! I am in awe of the life of Joni Eareckson Tada, who after fifty years of quadriplegia is even more convinced that God’s grace is sufficient for her. Not in awe of Joni, but in awe of the God who comes to us in our suffering, who gives us courage to tackle what lies ahead, and who alone is worthy of all honor and praise.
I love how this separates God’s presence from success and his absence from failure. How many of us need to shed the circumstantial “god” for the reality of Christ. — Jason
Readers’ Choice (Originally published February 8, 2017)
Since the Lord was with him there he was comforted; it would be infinitely better to be there with God than on the throne of Pharaoh without God.
― Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Scripture: Genesis 41.14
Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit.
Reflection: The Lord Be With YouBy Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)
Scripture frequently sums up a man’s life in a single sentence. Here is the biography of Joseph sketched by inspiration: “God was with him”—so Stephen testified in his famous speech recorded in Acts.
Observe, however, that the portraits of Scripture give us not only the outer, but the inner life of the man. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart; and so the Scriptural descriptions of men are not of their visible life alone, but of their spiritual life. Here we have Joseph as God saw him, the real Joseph.
Externally it did not always appear that God was with him, for he did not always seem to be a prosperous man; but when you come to look into the inmost soul of this servant of God, you see his true likeness—he lived in communion with the Most High, and God blessed him.
Furthermore, “The Lord was with Joseph,” but it did not screen him from temptation of the worst kind: it did not prevent his mistress casting her wicked eyes upon him. The best of men may be tempted to the worst of crimes.
The presence of God did not screen him from slander: the base woman accused him of outrageous wickedness, and God permitted Potiphar to believe her. You and I would have said, “If the Lord be with us how can this evil happen to us?” Ah, but the Lord was with him, and yet he was a slandered man.
The divine presence did not screen him from pain: he sat in prison wearing fetters till the iron entered into his soul, and yet “The Lord was with him.” That presence did not save him from disappointment. He said to the butler, “Think of me when it is well with thee”; but the butler altogether forgot him.
Everything may seem to go against you, and yet God may be with you. The Lord does not promise you that you shall have what looks like prosperity, but you shall have what is real prosperity in the best sense.
*Abridged and language updated from A Miniature Portrait Of Joseph by Charles Haddon Spurgeon.