Now I have not seen too many millenniums’ come and go, as a matter of fact, I can only think of one but to be totally honest I do not know how successful we have been so far. The last couple of decades have been filled with one disaster after another. It all started with that Y2K bug and talk about the end of the world. But it passed with barely a hiccup. The only thing that happened was that it was a great time to be in the generator and bottled water business.
Then the attack of 9/11 when almost everything changed. Then there was anthrax and numerous “justified” wars around the world. The stock market crashed and almost weekly, a politician found themselves in hot water for actions from their past and present. We grew more suspicious of our technology. This has been confirmed today as our phones, tablets, TVs and computers have been shown to be listening to our lives.
Today, we are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that has shut down almost all international travel and led to seeing people wearing masks everywhere. Everything we took for granted for just a generation ago, is now judged, questioned and even condemned. All of these events changed how we lived. In the end, the most devastating effects of all of this are the loss of trust and lack of compassion shown towards others and for many, a loss of hope for the future.
We all know about these large scales, newsworthy losses but we forget the millions of small, personal devastations people experience every day. A young mother receives a cancer diagnosis. A judge signs her name to divorce papers. A family business closes and locks its doors for the last time. Companies downsize leaving many unemployed and struggling to provide for their families. A teenager writes a note to his parents, giving up on life.
I heard an old Arab parable that says: “All sunshine and no rain make a desert.” If you never have any downtimes, dark times, gloomy times in your life you will be dried up. You’ll have no depth to yourself, no maturity. It takes good times and bad times to make a mature person. Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, of victory and defeat, of success and failure, of mountain tops and valleys.
In a world so apparently defined by tragedy, loss and failure do the words faith, hope and love ring true, realistic or even possible? Or do they sound like so much religious denial in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is nothing to believe in, nothing to look forward to, and nothing that can be done?
The greatest devastation for any culture is not that it will be forgotten, but that it will become forgetful. We are wandering in a deep state of amnesia. We have become so self-focused that we have forgotten what God says about the valleys of life and that others have been here before and survived.
In the midst of our current struggles in the world, I thought it would be good to look at valleys and things we can remember and ponder as we go through these tough times. Jesus’ words in John 16, “In the world you will have trouble” ring true in our ears today.
The first thing we need to remember is valleys are inevitable. They say that there are two things in life you cannot avoid, death and taxes. I would suggest that you will also experience valleys, so you might as well count on them. You have either just come out of a valley, you are in one right now, or you are probably headed toward one. Valleys happen throughout life – often one right after another. After every mountain top, there is a valley.
Jesus was very realistic about it. It was not a matter of if, it is when. It is going to happen. You are going to have difficulty, disappointment, and discouragement in life. There will be times of suffering, sorrow, and sickness. There will be times of frustration, failure and fatigue. They are going to happen. They are a normal part of life. Do not be surprised by it.
The second lesson we learn is valleys are unpredictable. We can make plans for the pleasant experiences in life such as holidays, grandchildren visiting or a wedding, but when challenges come into our lives, they are hard to prepare for. You cannot plan them, time them, or schedule them. Valleys are always unexpected. They usually come at the worst time – when you do not have time, when you are unprepared
Have you ever had a flat tire at a good time? They just happen. And usually when you least need them and it is most inconvenient. It would be very great if we could schedule our down times in life. You cannot plan life like that.
Valleys come suddenly. They are unpredictable. Have you noticed how easily a good day can become a bad day? A phone call, a letter, a routine doctor’s check-up, a freak accident. Valleys just happen. Jeremiah 4:20 says, “Disaster follows disaster… In an instant my tents are destroyed, my shelter falls in a moment.”
Thirdly, we know that valleys happen to all of us… they are impartial. Like temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), no one is immune to them. No one is insulated from pain and sorrow. No one gets to skate through life problem-free. Everybody has problems – good people and bad people. Problems, trials, difficulties, disturbances, downtimes, depression. That does not mean you are a bad person. It just means you are a person. It does not mean you are an evil human being; it means you are a human being. The Bible is very clear that good things happen to bad people and sometimes bad things happen to good people. Valleys are impartial. They do not care how good or bad you are.
We also know that valleys are more often than not, temporary. We have all heard about grey clouds and their silver linings. Valleys have ends. They have an end to them. They do not last. Generally, they are not a permanent location. David says in Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley…”
The valley is not something you stay in your entire life. It is something you go through – a circumstance, a situation that has a season to it. When you are in a valley you often think it is a dead-end, but it is not. They do not come into your life to stay. They come to pass.
We read in 1 Peter 1:6, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” He admits that sometimes you are going to go through tough times. It is going to be rough. Life is tough. You are going to have it. But it is only for a while. There is wonderful joy ahead. What is Peter talking about? Heaven. There are no problems in heaven, no valleys, and no dark days. While you may be harassed down here, in heaven you will have no problems. If you know the Lord Jesus Christ, that is where you are going.
Lastly, we also need to remember that valleys are purposeful. Frank E. Peretti said, “God does not waste an ounce of our pain or a drop of our tears; suffering doesn’t come our way for no reason, and He seems efficient at using what we endure to mould character. If we are malleable, He takes our bumps and bruises and shapes them into something beautiful.” God has a reason for taking you through the valleys. Whether it is doubt, depression, discouragement, despair, defeat – He has a reason behind it.
There are financial valleys, relational valleys, emotional valleys, and all kinds of different trials. This is no accident – it happens to prove your faith. The valleys are not just a freak of nature. God wants to build your faith in the valleys of life. We love to enjoy the mountain tops, but you do not build faith on the mountain tops. You build faith in the valleys of life. When everything is going fine and great you don’t need God. But when you come face to face with a dark valley, you get on your knees. Faith is strengthened in the valleys. When you do not feel like serving and trusting God, praising God… that is where your faith is tested. Not in the good times of life, but the valleys.
Every problem has a purpose. Even the little tiny ones, the inconsequential ones, the things that seem like a mosquito, a minor irritation, they have a purpose. God can teach you character. He wants to change you, mature you. Listen to what Lamentations 3:18-20 says, “Gone is my glory, all that I had hoped for in the Lord. I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”
It sure sounds like Jeremiah is going through a valley, But where is his hope? If the book of Lamentations ended at 3:20, all we could say is that at least someone, somewhere knew what it was like to live in a world unhinged. But the raw honesty of verses 18 – 20 is followed by these words of hope in verses 21-26, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ’The Lord is my portion; therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
How can someone who so eloquently describes his struggle, pen words so equally full of confidence? The difference between despair and confidence in the future is hope. Before we talk about how he manages to find hope in his desperate situation, Let us be absolutely sure that we know what hope is. And what it is not.
Hope, the kind the Bible talks about, is not optimism or positive confession or a denial of reality. Do not get me wrong. I love optimists. They tend to live longer than pessimists, accomplish more and are just a lot more fun to be around. A pessimist can hardly wait for the future so he can look back with regret. Optimists can hardly wait for the future because they just know it is going to be better than today.
I read a story about a student who was seen pedalling a bicycle around his college campus. He was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Studying to be a doctor.” On the back of his bicycle was a tag that read, “Studying to be a Mercedes.” Optimists handle failure and frustration better than pessimists.
For all their similarities, though, hope and optimism are entirely different animals. Optimists think they can. Or that others will. Those with hope, know God will. Optimists survey the circumstances and find the positive. They see the glass half full. They see a flat tire and say, “Yeah, but it’s only flat on the bottom.”
Hope, on the other hand, does not take its cue from circumstances. In fact, there is this odd calculus involved with hope. The greater the pain, the more desperate the circumstance, the stronger, more confident hope becomes. Paul talks about that in Romans 5:3-5 when he writes, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Did you notice the reason hope does not disappoint? “Because God.” That is Jeremiah’s secret in Lamentations. 3:21 says, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.” What did he call to mind? “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.”
Jeremiah’s confidence in the future had nothing to do with optimism. If you were to rank the characters of the Bible in order of their positive spirit and optimistic outlook, Jeremiah would be dead last. He was, by far, the most pessimistic prophet to ever bend Israel’s ear. In fact, he’s called the weeping prophet. That is why in many ways, he is my hero!
The lights dimmed when Jeremiah walked into a room. He could cloud up a sunny day. But when he talks about the future he sounds like he is selling on commission. Why? His hope was in God. When your hope is in what God can do, you are not just wishing.
Secondly, hope for the future is based on the experience of the past. And when your hope is in God, you are basing your confident expectation for the future on the faithfulness of God’s action in the past. John Piper addresses this over and over in his writings. I often mention that one of the most important words in the Bible is “remember.”
That is why memory is so important to hope. By reaching into the past we find assurances that the future will not be destroyed by the present. That’s how the Jews did it. No people have ever been through so much for so long at the hateful hands of so many, as the Jews. Yet few people are so hopeful.
Look at Psalm 136. This is a textbook example, literally, of how hope for the future is maintained by remembering the past. This is an antiphonal Psalm. That means the leader would say the first part and the congregation would respond. Listen to the hope found in these lines.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever. to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever. who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever. who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever. who made the great lights—His love endures forever. the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever. the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever. to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever. and brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever. with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever. to him who divided the Red Sea asunder His love endures forever. and brought Israel through the midst of it, His love endures forever. but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea; His love endures forever. to him who led his people through the wilderness; His love endures forever. to him who struck down great kings, His love endures forever. and killed mighty kings—His love endures forever. Sihon king of the Amorites His love endures forever. and Og king of Bashan—His love endures forever. and gave their land as an inheritance, His love endures forever. an inheritance to his servant Israel. His love endures forever. He remembered us in our low estate His love endures forever. and freed us from our enemies. His love endures forever. He gives food to every creature. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.”
That is how they kindled hope. That is how they overcame despair. They remembered what God had done in the past. They were honest about the tragedy of the present. But they were hopeful about the promise of the future, because their hope was in God. Hope grows out of memory.
In teaching us about the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Was that for Him? Or was it for us? In the catacombs of ancient Rome, archeologists have discovered a number of early Christian symbols. One of them is the Icthus or a fish. One is the shepherd. And there is one more common symbol. The anchor.
Now, why do you suppose they would have an anchor as a common symbol? Maybe it is because of Hebrews 6:19; “But we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” The catacombs were where Christians hid from Roman persecution and where they buried their dead. It is odd that a symbol of a firm and secure hope would exist in a place of hiding, in a place of death. Not when you remember that their hope in the face of persecution and death rested on the memory of an empty tomb, a risen saviour, and a coming King.
We live in a world that can be described as chaotic and unstable at best. With the current uncertainty in everything that surrounds us, the things seen and experienced by our senses, can seem overwhelming. But when we take the time to remember where our hope truly lies, we can find rest and experience true peace that surpasses not only our understanding but the very things we see.