Lord of the Darkness: Trusting Jehovah When Suffering Comes

Psalm 88 must be the darkest psalm of them all, and one of the bleakest passage in the Bible. As I read this today, I kept waiting for the yet or however or but that you find in other psalms, but there are none. The author, Heman, goes on and on about how bad his life is. Read my journal entry with more of the background and my commentary on this psalm here.

In all his dark despair, Heman did not give up on God; he did not stop coming to him in prayer. He addressed God as Lord, Jehovah four times in this psalm. Jehovah is the name for God that stresses his covenant relationship with his people. Heman recognized that God was still true to his promises. This gave Heman hope even in his hopelessness.

Every one of us as followers of Christ and as leaders in his kingdom will face suffering and pain and unanswered questions. At some point in your life you will, if you haven’t already, come to a place where you are wondering where God is. You’ll feel forsaken. You’ll ask God for help that only he can give and you’ll hear only quiet. This may feel very dark. 

In the midst of the dark, painful circumstances of our lives, we must hold on to God’s promises. We must be a covenant people. We must remember that God has made a covenant with us and we have made a covenant with him, so that when times get tough, we don’t give up … as the world does. We hold onto the covenant, we keep our promises, we trust in Jehovah Jireh, our Lord Provider. 
Simply put, we trust our God more than we trust our circumstances.

When Cupid’s Arrows Bring Pain

Today I am blessed to celebrate Valentine’s Day with my beautiful bride and love of my life, Heidi. Valentine’s Day 2012 was not so happy. I won’t go into details in this public place–not yet anyway–but many of our close friends and family know the past several years have been a struggle for us.

I know we’re not alone. Marriage is a gift from God and, like many gifts, it comes with human heartaches and yes, even suffering. Cupid’s arrows actually do pierce our hearts, bringing both romance and pain. There’s one very good reason for this, of course. Marriage, as good and holy and fulfilling and intimate as it can be, is a partnership between two imperfect people. Wait … imperfect does not feel strong enough here. Let’s try broken, severely messed up, fatally flawed. 

I agree with John and Stasi Eldredge, who say that marriage is a divine conspiracy. God lures two very different people together–both with different backgrounds and ways of relating and approaches to life. “Our mutual brokenness is drawn together like a match and gunpowder.”* God does this so that he can transform us … and, as the Eldredges say, to get us to face our styles of relating and repent of them. Others have said the same thing: marriage is not meant so much to make us happy as it is to make us holy.

A year ago, in the midst of so much uncertainty and pain and heartache, I began meditating every day on Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I had to ask God to help me understand what it meant to delight in him. At first I prayed this in reverse. I asked God to give me the desires of my heart: restoration of my relationship with my wife … and then, when I got what I wanted, I would delight in God’s provision. God in his patience showed me something far better. When I learned to delight in him regardless of the circumstances, he would give me my heart’s desire, because my desires would finally match up with his desires.

Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote these words in my journal:

I know, Lord, that you are in control. I once again surrender all this to you. I thank you with all my heart and I will be filled with joy because of you. Even in extremely difficult life circumstances, I can have joy in you and because of you. I delight in you! And that does not depend on my circumstances or situation. Today I will sing praises to your name, O Most High!

Today, you may be celebrating Valentine’s Day alone, or perhaps you have a sense of uncertainty or you are in a state of pain and heartache. I don’t want to minimize or moralize your pain today with some sugary sweet Valentine’s Day platitudes. Yes, I am indeed blessed that my marriage has been resurrected. We are working on our relationship every day, reconciling with God’s grace, and being restored. We struggle but we do not struggle alone. Yet I realize that not all situations work out as ours has. I have many good friends who are still feeling the pain of loneliness, the lament of “Why is this happening?” the yearning for renewed hope.

My prayer for anyone who is hurting this Valentine’s Day is that you will find your hope … not primarily in a mate or a job or anything else that is perishable and undependable and broken. My desire for you, and me, and Heidi is to find our joy in a God who never leaves or forsakes us–to delight in him and allow his desires to overwhelm our own desires.

* from Love & War, by John and Stasi Eldredge (Doubleday Religion, 2009).

Partnering with God

God specializes in reconciliation and restoration! It’s what he does best and it’s one of the things in which he takes great joy. Just read Luke 15 to see what I mean. God also loves to do more–surpassingly or abundantly more–than we can even ask or imagine. He loves it when we partner with him to carry out his mission and see lives change, one at a time, in small and big ways.

By the way, I’ve been away from my blog for a little more than a month. Life has been busy but very very good! God is working, answering prayers–not just mine, but those of many of our friends–and he has been very obvious lately in directing my steps.

Nick Lenzi and Mike at Dinner Group
Leader’s retreat in Mont Lawn, PA

The last two weekends, I had the privilege to lead a small groups retreat for +Hoboken Grace Church in Hoboken, New Jersey. +Nicholas Lenzi is the small groups guy there, and he invited me up to train his leaders in a weekend retreat January 12-13. Then, last weekend, I had the honor of leading a the Small Groups Conference at Johnston Evangelical Free Church, near Des Moines, Iowa.

Hoboken Grace is an urban church, in a one-square-mile city that I understand does not have one house, where everyone lives in apartment buildings, and which has the second-highest population in the world per capita. Johnston Free is in a more suburban/rural setting, a growing area that used to be mostly farmland. One church consisted of all young professionals, with young leaders, almost all of which were under 35. Most work in New York City, and they are very multicultural. The other was made up of a wide variety of ages, but tended toward the over-40 age group and was pretty much monocultural.

God uses a variety of different types of churches to accomplish his mission!

By the way, if you’re looking for training for your leaders, please let me know. See the training/equipping page at www.SmallGroupLeadership.com.

I’ll share a couple stories from these conferences over the next few days.

You’re A Shepherd, But Not The Shepherd

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:2).

As a small group leader, your main role is to be a shepherd, yet it is essential for you to understand that you are not the real shepherd, the chief shepherd. That role belongs exclusively to Jesus.

I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep,” and mysheep know me. . . . I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be oneflock and one shepherd” (John 10:14-16, my emphasis)

Jesus is the head shepherd of the group. Yet God designed his church as a partnership with human beings. You are called to represent him, carry out his plans, fulfill his commission, and perform the ministry he gives you to do. He is the king; you are his ambassador. He is the owner of the group; you are his steward. He is the chief shepherd; you are his “subordinate shepherd.”

Jesus’ Role as the Chief Shepherd
Your Role as a Subordinate Shepherd
·         Knows his sheep and makes it possible for the sheep to know him
·         Lays down his life for the sheep
·         Calls the sheep by name
·         Seeks after the lost sheep and draws them to himself
·         Provides eternal life and abundant life
·         Follow the Chief Shepherd
·         Model following the Chief Shepherd
·         Help the sheep under your care to hear and respond to the Chief Shepherd’s voice
·         Guide the sheep under your care to follow the Good Shepherd and reach out to sheep without a shepherd
·         Encourage the sheep to live the abundant life
Your main role as a small group leader is to be a shepherd. But not the shepherd. As you shepherd the group he has put under your care, your main responsibility is to follow your Chief Shepherd very closely, so that you can clearly hear his voice and then respond as the shepherd he has called you to be. 

“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).


The Psalm of the No-Good Shepherd

Portions of this post adapted from my book, I’m a Leader … Now What? How to Guide an Effective Small Group (Standard Publishing, 2007), chapter 4. 

7 Ways to Respond When God Does Not Feel Like “Immanuel”

What do you do when you are struggling and God seems far away?

Especially during this season of the year, it seems many of us are hurting. We desperately want to know Immanuel—God with us—but he seems more like Exmanuel–God used to be with me, but now I feel like he’s left me … or I feel like he is so external to my current experience.

You are not alone.

Many others feel this way too. People in the Bible often felt this way. Jeremiah, King David, Martha and Mary, and even Jesus himself felt as if God was not near or had forsaken them in their times when they needed him most. So what’s up with this?

People in the Bible often felt as if God wasn't near when they needed him most. Click To Tweet

In Psalm 77, the author, Asaph, was struggling. He believed and trusted in God, but he was questioning where God was in the moment of his pain. This is difficult for us to understand. Sometimes when we are lonely or hurting or both, we cry out to God and hear nothing. We do not sense his presence even though we are seeking it. We are filled with questions: Why? Where are you, Lord? What is going on here? (Read Psalm 77 and look at Asaph’s questions in verses 7-9; we are not alone in our questions!) We just want to understand and know he is still there for us. And yet, inexplicably … nothing.

Later on—maybe days, weeks, months, perhaps even years later—we can look back and see how God was moving. Later on we understand God’s sovereignty and timing. But we often don’t see that in the moment of our despair.

Asaph came to a turning point in his perceptions in verse 11: “I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago” (Psalm 77:11, New Living Translation). This is one vital reason why it’s so important for us to read God’s Word. The powerful stories remind us of his faithfulness, strength, and love. They give us perspective. They lift us up out of our current circumstances to help us see God is, indeed, in control. We can also look back at our own lives as well and see the way he has worked in more personal ways.

Remembering God’s greatness and sovereignty naturally leads us to worship: an acknowledgement of who God is and how powerful he is. Worship is vital in the darkness of the valley.

For me, at least, all I can say in the midst of this is, I will continue to trust you, Lord, no matter how I feel. I’ve come to a place where I know I must worship God even though I don’t feel like it, and don’t even necessarily sense his presence with me as I call out to him in praise for who he is. It is an act of the will at this point.

I know I must worship God even though I don't necessarily sense his presence. It is an act of the will. Click To Tweet

That was Asaph’s approach:

“O God, your ways are holy. Is there any god as mighty as you?” (Psalm 77:13).


So, let’s get practical. When God does not feel very much like Immanuel, God with you …

  1. Remember all he has done.
  2. Read God’s Word and look for his faithfulness and power in the midst of the trials.
  3. Reflect on a time in your own life when God seemed far away, yet he came through.
  4. Trust him—this is an act of the will.
  5. Turn to worship him.
  6. Don’t go it alone. This is the time to be with a community of friends.
  7. Serve someone else. Turn your focus upward and outward.


Thankful Through the Valley

I am thankful today that I have the privilege of having a loving Father who is BIG and powerful! Bigger than any circumstance or situation, more powerful than anyone or anything that comes against me. I’m thankful that though he is so big, he also is concerned and involved in the minute details of my life. He is Jehovah Jireh, my provider. He knows me not only as one of millions of his creations, but individually, as his treasured child.

As some of my good friends and family know, this past year has been difficult in many ways as I’ve walked through a dark valley of the soul. But God’s promise in Psalm 23 is true. He has walked through this valley with me. I would not wish my circumstances over the past year on anyone, but I would wish that each of my friends and family could experience the Father’s closeness and power that I’ve felt during this time. I’m thankful that God is trustworthy and true. Draw close to him and he will never be far away from you. Delight yourself in him, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4).

What are you thankful for?

Thanking God for Temporary
Thankful for God’s Jealousy, Vengeance, and Anger
Snow Day Devotional

When Life Isn’t Making Sense, Ask the Right Questions

When you are walking through a dark valley of the soul or when the circumstances in your life are not making sense, it’s vital to ask the right questions.

In Psalm 73, the people, in the midst of difficult and seemingly unfair life situations, are dismayed and confused. “Does God realize what is going on?” they ask. “Is the Most High even aware of what is happening?” (Psalm 73:11, New Living Translation). 

This is the question many people still ask today, especially those who follow God from arms length, the Sunday-morning church-goers who have never counted the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. People look at their circumstances and ask, “Where is God in all this?” But when we, even we who have counted the cost and are walking in a trusting relationship with God, ask such a question, it reveals our own hearts.

When I am walking closely with God–making my relationship with him my #1 priority; spending time with him each day to hear what he wants to say to me that day; loving him with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind; trusting him regardless of my circumstances; delighting in him and in his presence with me–I don’t ask that question. I know God knows what is going on, because I’ve talked to him about it, and I know he was listening. I know he is aware of what is happening because I know he is indeed the Sovereign Lord who knows everything. I know he cares about the situation because I know he is my loving Father; he is a compassionate shepherd who wants to give us peace and rest. I know he can change the circumstances if he chooses to, because he is all powerful. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have questions. I do.

And so this raises the question that I do ask: God, I don’t understand. In my human understanding, I don’t know how this is all going to work out and I can’t see how you are working in this. What are you doing? How are you going to work all this out for the good of those who really love you and are called according to your purposes? Please, Lord, show me just a sliver of your plan and purpose. Regardless,, Lord, help me to hang on and to continue to trust in you, to continue to trust in your timing.

The interesting thing is that these questions actually draw me even closer to God, which, I believe, is part of God’s big-picture purpose when we walk through these dark valleys. “Yet I still belong to you; you are holding my right hand” (v. 23)!

What Do You Do When Life Sucks?
Bribing God
When God Puts You on Hold

What Do You Do When Life Sucks?

What do you do when life sucks? What do you do when it seems everyone and everything is against you? What do you do when your marriage isn’t what you want it to be or you are struggling with your kids? What do you do when your pile of bills is way bigger than you can pay? What do you do when you’re trying to lead but things are not going as you expect and hope? What do you do when you feel totally discouraged, hurt, and afraid?

Have you been here lately? Are you here now?

I want to encourage you–and myself–today. God is working, regardless of what you have done or are doing. He is at work, regardless of how you feel or the circumstances you are in. He cares for you and has a plan for your life no matter how long you’ve been asking and waiting.

In Psalm, 69, David tells God about his dire circumstances and opens up about how he is feeling. He said he was exhausted from crying for help (v. 3). Have you been there? I have.

After sharing all this for 12 verses, David says an important word: “But.”

“But,” he says, “I keep right on praying to you, Lord, hoping this time you will show me favor.”

  • When life sucks … keep right on praying.
  • When your circumstances are bad … keep right on praying (see Philippians 4:12-13). 
  • When you feel depressed, hurt, mad, confused, or whatever … keep right on praying.
  • When you’re not hearing any answers … keep right on praying.
  • When you’ve been praying a long, long time … keep right on praying (trusting in God’s, not your own, timetable).
And one more thing: as you keep on praying, keep delighting yourself in the Lord, as well. Worship him. Put him and his kingdom and his righteousness first. Trust him, regardless of how things seem or how you feel. Take a walk outside and delight in God’s creation. Hold a baby and delight in God’s miracles. Read the Bible and delight yourself in God’s Word. Care for a friend and delight in the opportunity to serve. God promises that when you delight yourself in him, he will give you the desires (favor) of your heart … in his timing, for his glory. (As you delight yourself in him, I believe his desires become your desires, and he is glad to to give you those!) 
How will you respond when life sucks? 
Related Posts:

Bribing God

There are some “if … then” passages in the Bible, and it is vital how you interpret and apply them! Here’s one I read this morning:

“If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, my Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18, New Living Translation). 

Some people interpret this legalistically. In other words, they think, God will not have any communion with me if I don’t first confess my sins to him. Some Christians even set up their prayer times by being absolutely certain to put confession before supplication. When we do this, we can easily make things like adoration, confession, and thanksgiving holy bribes to soften up God before we ask him for what we want.

Psalm 66:8 is talking about the condition of our hearts, not some legalistic thing we must “do” to blackmail or even to lure God into listening to us. God is concerned primarily about our hearts. God listened to David because David came to him with an open, contrite, humble heart that allowed David to honestly confess his sins to his Father.

The same heart condition was in play in another “if … then” passage when Jesus talked about the necessity of forgiving others in order for God to forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15). In other words, Jesus was saying, if your heart is so hardened that you cannot forgive others, then your heart is not yet ready to reconcile with your loving Father who is waiting patiently to forgive you and receive you back into his arms. It’s about your heart being open, not about God putting a legalistic barrier in place.

When our pride gets in the way of being able to confess, repent, and forgive others, God puts us in a place where we can be broken and humbled. That’s what God lovingly did with David (see Psalm 51), and he still does this today with us. It’s up to us how we respond to him in these circumstances.

20 Questions to Ask at the End of Your Rope

If you’re at the end of your rope, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What is the other end of this rope tied to? 
  2. Where is this rope supposed to be taking me? 
  3. Is it tied to the right things, the right values?
  4. Am I sure I’m at the end of my rope or do I just feel that way? 
  5. Is it possible there’s still more rope beneath me, but I’m too afraid to look down?
  6. Why do I feel I’m at the end of my rope?
  7. Am I losing my grip because I’ve been working so hard at climbing under my own power?
  8. Who told me I’m supposed to climb this rope anyway? 
  9. Is it possible this rope-climbing activity is a waste of my precious time?
  10. Do I really feel safer holding onto this rope? 
  11. Is there something better in life than rope-climbing?
  12. How many people die, still clutching their ropes?
  13. What would happen if I let go of the rope I’m clinging to? 
  14. Who would catch me if I let go? 
  15. Haven’t I heard an encouraging voice: “Let go. Come to me you who are tired of climbing. I will catch you and hold you and give you rest”? 
  16. Do I trust that I will be caught and never let go?
  17. What will life be like if I’m not holding onto this rope?
  18. Do I trust my death grip on this rope more than the one who will catch me if I let go?
  19. Who will help me let go and encourage me in my catcher? 
  20. What will it take to let go, to release this and throw my hands up in surrender?