So what was 2018 like for you? Looking back I have had a good year- enjoyable holidays, pleasant times with family and friends, the privilege of speaking in a variety of contexts alongside a good year for us as a church (that I’ll aim to write about later in the week). But what if 2018 wasn’t great? For many I know this has been a year with painful family circumstances, unexpected health shocks, job difficulties or unfulfilled longings. I’ve listened to enough stories this year to feel the agony of those experiences. What do we do with that? What do I do if 2019 turns out differently for me or for us as a church?
The word that goes through my mind is “But…”. It came up a few times in our sermon series Behind the Mask when we looked at the painful realities of life in the Psalms. Preaching on Psalm 13 was a moving experience. The context is unfulfilled longing- “How long O Lord?”. And yet the Psalm will hinge around a “but”. The longing remains but the Psalmist does decide- “But I trust in your unfailing love.”
The same attitude shone through the life of Hudson Taylor, the 19th century pioneer missionary to China. In November we spent a Sunday evening looking back on his life. Truth be told, most of that talk was not new- I’ve been using Hudson Taylor material for years reflecting on his heart for the lost, the difference the doctrine of union with Christ made to him and so on. But as I worked through his life again it was his willingness consciously to remember God in the midst of astonishingly difficult circumstances that struck me. He really did suffer. He had a broken engagement early in his life, appalling loneliness in his initial years in China, the stress of leading a mission where members were often persecuted and even martyred and the agony of seeing both wife and children die young. But look out for the “but God” in these comments that he made:
“I am pressed beyond measure. But Jesus is here…”
“At times I seem overwhelmed with the internal and external trials connected with our work. But He has said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee” and “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” So be it.”
“My need now is great and urgent but God is greater and more near.”
The reason this matters is that Hudson Taylor manages to see beyond the circumstances of life. Yes- the circumstances are grim but God is with me.
You sense the same attitude in Habakkuk. The prophet is mystified by God’s providence. Looking at God’s apparent unwillingness to act in the face of injustice in society he effectively poses the question- “Why aren’t you doing anything God?” When God says that He will bring the Babylonians to invade the Israelites the question effectively becomes- “Why are you doing that?”. By the end, though, Habakkuk becomes a model of rejoicing in God.
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength…”
The short-term future is going to be pretty bleak. And yet Habakkuk recognises that these circumstances are not the sole reality of his life. There is the Lord- and He is still his Saviour. Ultimately one day Habakkuk (and we) will be rescued from a dark world. And the Lord will be our strength in the meantime. Whatever the circumstances we always have reasons to rejoice.
Last night we held our traditional end of year testimony evening at church. Although I had planned to do a seven minute epilogue on Habakkuk at the end we ran out of time and didn’t get to it. But, truth be told, that didn’t matter because we had heard Habakkuk 3 modelled throughout the evening. Sometimes those testimony evenings have focused on the Lord blessing our circumstances (for which we should give thanks.) But last night was different. We heard stories of painful childhoods, the experience of being the only Christian in a family, facing up to dementia, cancer and other challenges. The repeated phrase was “But God…”. For many it had been a tremendously tough year and yet people repeatedly testified to God’s presence and encouragement in providing comfort. It was hugely heart warming to hear.
This is a distinctively Christian approach to life. The one who doesn’t know the Lord cannot really add “But God” to a description of pain. There is no reason for joy. But the Christian is different. We recall the angels’ message of good news of great joy- and we remember that the distinctive of Christian joy is that it is not circumstance dependent. For whatever else happens, the source of joy- Jesus our Saviour- will not be taken away.
None of this removes sorrow entirely. But it means that sorrow need not be the only word. We can be sorrowful yet rejoicing. Whatever 2018 has brought or 2019 may bring, remember to add the phrase “But God”. And then you can say “I will rejoice.”