The Suffering Elephant

Heather Zempel

Hello NCC! How are you this weekend? I have a little confession to make. This weekend we are doing The Suffering Elephant, we are continuing The Elephant in the Church series, and last week, Pastor Mark was talking about the Supernatural Elephant, right? He was talking about how healing still takes place, you remember that? And one of the things he mentioned was that we know God doesn’t always heal us, and he said, “We are going to talk about that, we are going to talk about the Suffering Elephant, we are going to talk about it next week.” And I’m sitting on the front row of Union Station thinking, ‘Yeah, right, we. No, no, me. Heather gets to tackle the Suffering Elephant.’

Hey, my name is Heather Zempel and I’m a Discipleship Pastor here at National Community Church. I am so glad you are with us today. If you have your Bible, you can turn over to the Book of Habakkuk, that’s where we’re going to be spending most of our time. Habakkuk is nestled between those well-loved books of Nahum and Zephaniah, so you can suffer through the Minor Prophets looking for that. I want to make a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that we are tackling the age-old theological, philosophical question today of why bad things happen to good people. This question has been around for a very long time. In fact, the first book of the Bible ever written was the Book of Job. The Book of Genesis comes chronologically first, but the Book of Job was the first one that was written, and the Book of Job was about this question about why do bad things happen to good people. The Book of Job was written about 2,000 years before Christ, which means that humanity has been struggling with this question for at least 4,000 years. I’ve been struggling with it for a whopping 34 years, and if you consider that the first two years probably don’t count, it’s just a little over 30, so I don’t have a ton of experience. And if we think about suffering in terms of the grand scheme of things, I mean, I’ve got to be real frank and real honest, I don’t have that much tragedy in my life. When we put this behind the backdrop of humanity, when we put it behind the backdrop of history, we think about martyrdom and we think about the persecution of the church all over the world, we think about families torn apart by war, we think about entire cities that are blown off the map by natural disasters, I feel very small in all of this. Even as I look at different people right here in this room that I know have faced tragedy that goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. If I’m really honest about it, the extent of my tragedy is generally confined to the limits of a losing season of t-ball and some really long, painful dance recitals, having to work with Pastor Joel. Ballston, are you booing me yet?

I think it is really easy for us sometimes to look at what’s going on what’s around the world and this is what I’ve learned, I think grief is grief, suffering is suffering, anger is anger, confusion is confusion, questioning is questioning, regardless of the scope of the tragedy we face, right? What we feel inside here is not always predicated on the extent of the tragedy that is facing us. The level that we feel suffering and that we feel grief and that we feel sadness is not always directly proportional to the extent of the tragedy that is staring us in the face. And I’ve found that what I have a tendency to do is that in an attempt or in some sort of form of pseudo-holiness, I will take the places in my life where I am angry at God and just kind of shove them under the carpet because when I compare my little tragedy to what’s going on elsewhere in the world, it is really not that significant. When I look at what is going on in my world and where I am angry at God or where I am feeling sorrow or sadness or confusion or disappointment and then I compare that to my brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in India or fill in the blank, and with pseudo-holiness, I can just say, I’m not anywhere near that, and I shove it under the carpet and what’s happens is that there is anger and there is sorrow and disappointment and confusion that God can’t deal with because I’m not willing to acknowledge that it is there.

Grief is grief and suffering is suffering and all of us in this room today have something that has happened in our lives that has caused us confusion and questioning and anger and discomfort. We’ve got to bring that to light so God can meet us there and deal with it regardless of the extent or how much we feel it is insignificant compared to what’s going on around us. And then there is the ‘why’ collection. Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t even think I can tackle this question this weekend, because we don’t have 4,000 years to look at it. And the Bible is great on this. The Bible gives us lots of different reasons why these things happen. In some cases, it is a judgment against sin; in some cases, it is to make us holy, to bring us into perfection, to help build into us the person that God wants us to be; in some cases, it’s because there is a liar and a deceiver and an enemy of our souls that works around the clock to bring disaster to the people of God. The Bible never treats this topic in a total, complete, systematic, theological and philosophical way. If we are really honest about it, when we are in the middle of a situation where our circumstances contradict the character and the promises of God, answering the question ‘why’ does not help us get out of bed the next morning. Thinking about the ‘why’ question is helpful because the way that we think about this stuff affects the way that we respond, and the way that we live it out, and the way that we look at it and the way that we frame it, but when we are in the middle of tragedy of our lives, when we are in the middle of circumstances that contradict the character and the nature of God, ‘why’ doesn’t help us get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other and face a new day.

How do we respond when the circumstances in our lives seem to contradict the character and promises of God? In Genesis 50:20, a guy named Joseph says, “As far as I’m concerned, God turned into good what you meant for evil.” He said that to his brothers. If he looked at the circumstances in his life, the pit, the slavery, the false accusations, the prison, “As far as I’m concerned, God turned to good what you meant for evil.” Joseph’s circumstances, his past, could not change, but He allowed God to step in and put a new frame around them, and God re-defined his life. There are a lot of ways that we can respond to this question. There are a lot of ways that we can respond when the circumstances in our life contradict the character and promises of God.

What I want to do today is look at one man, this prophet named Habakkuk. The last thing I want to do is give you seven steps from suffering to freedom, or four keys to springing out of your sorrow. This is one man’s response. This is one window we can look through when despair seems to close the walls in around us. I just want to give us one window out in what one man named Habakkuk did when the circumstances in his life contradicted what he knew about God. A little background – Habakkuk’s name means to embrace and to wrestle. What a fascinating combination of ideas, that to embrace God is to wrestle with God and to wrestle with God is to embrace God. Habakkuk’s name means to wrestle and Habakkuk was a prophet who lived in a time when things were very out of control. He lived during the reign of King Josiah who brought great revival and great reform to the people of Israel, but then what happened is this guy named King Jehoiakim steps in, and King Jehoiakim just makes everything go crazy. The law is just let go of and people are living in unholy and unrighteous ways and Habakkuk’s heart breaks for what he sees going on around him, and he goes to God and says, “This is not right.” We read in Habakkuk 1:1, this is the message that the prophet Habakkuk received from the Lord in a vision: How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence. I am surrounded by people who love to argue and fight. The law has become paralyzed, and there is no justice in the courts. The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted.

What’s going on here? Habakkuk is looking around at the circumstances of his life and saying to himself, ‘This is not right, I’m going to take my concern, my complaints to God.’ It is interesting it says here when he calls out, that first word, calls out, it means a request, an inquiry, a question. But when it says: “Violence, I cry out” in the original language, that cry out carries with it this idea of screaming with a loud voice and calling out from a disturbed heart. Habakkuk is crying out to God, saying, “God, this is not right, something is wrong with the world as we see, will you please come and do something? Will you bring revival to your people?” This is how God answers Habakkuk, verse 5: The LORD replied, “Look around at the nations; look and be amazed! For I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it. Ok, this is sounding good, this is sounding real good, God is going to do something in Habakkuk’s day that no one will believe. Then what does it say: I am raising up the Babylonians, to be a new power on the world scene. They are a cruel and violent nation who will march across the world and conquer it. They are notorious for their cruelty and do whatever they like and no one can stop them. Their horses are swifter than cheetahs and fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their charioteers charge from far away. Like eagles, they swoop down to devour their prey.

‘God, bring revival to your people!’

‘Habakkuk, I’m going to do it, I’m going to raise up this Babylonian army to come in and destroy you.’

This isn’t just not getting an answer to prayer, this is a bad answer to prayer. If I were Habakkuk, I would have said, ‘I take it back, forget I ever prayed this morning!’

I remember very vividly the first time that God didn’t answer my prayer in a way that I thought and expected Him to do it. I was between my third and fourth grade years of elementary school. This is serious. This is like one of those prayers that really was serious, not one of those ‘please help my losing t-ball team.’ This was a kid that was in my school who had cancer, and I remember being at church one night and for some strange reason I was actually paying attention, and the pastor was sharing prayer requests with the congregation and one of the things that was shared was that we really need to pray for Brian, because if God doesn’t intervene with a miracle in his life, he will lose his leg in surgery tomorrow from the knee down. I had great faith as an 8 year old. Not only did I think God could turn around that losing t-ball team, I thought that God could intervene and do a miracle in Brian’s life, and I have a vivid memory, my sister and I, it was summer so we had a camp-out in my bedroom and I remember being there in my Disney sleeping bag and her in her Sesame Street sleeping bag, and as my sister drifted off to sleep, I began to pray, and I remember telling my heavenly Father, “God, I know You can heal Brian.” I believed it with everything inside of me, I knew what my God could do, and I told God that I would pray all night if I have to, I will pray from now until the moment of surgery if that’s what it takes. And I prayed for what seemed like an eternity that night, I’m sure it was probably only 15 minutes, but for an 8 year old kid, it seemed like forever, because I was filled with faith that my God could and wanted to heal Brian. The next morning, Brian lost his leg from the knee down. What does that do to a kid who has heard week after week in Sunday School about what God can do? About the miracles that Jesus did?

Habakkuk is in a very similar situation. So he goes back to God, verse 12: O Lord my God, my Holy One, You who are eternal, is your plan in all of this to wipe us out? Surely not, O Lord our Rock, You have decreed the rise of these Babylonians to punish and correct us for our terrible sins, You are perfectly just in this, but will You who cannot allow sin in any form stand idly by while they swallow us up? Should You be silent while the wicked destroy people who are more righteous than they? This is Habakkuk, ‘What the?’ I’m from the South and the word we use here is heck. What the heck is going on here? You are using something that is unholy to accomplish your purposes? This doesn’t make sense, this contradicts your character. I know, God, that I was complaining, that my people are in ruin and despair but these people, these Babylonians are evil, evil people. How can you do this? I think the first thing we need to think about when we face these situations in our lives is that it is ok to question God. It is ok for us to come and say, ‘God, I’m second-guessing your perfect will here just a little bit,’ and I know it is ok because Jesus did it. On the night that Jesus was going to the cross, He said, “Father, if there any way you can cause this cup of suffering to pass me by, please do it.” That’s just a very poetic, eloquent Jesus-like way of saying, ‘Father, I’m not sure this plan is the plan I want to choose.’ See, I think there is a difference between doubt and unbelief, and some of us need God to come in today and redefine what we are facing, to redefine our experience. And redefinition could come in the form of understanding the difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is the thing that causes you to question and to wrestle and to seek out and to fight, which means that you are still coming to God. Unbelief is when you just walk away from God. Warren Weirsbe said, “To avoid tough questions or to settle for half truths and superficial answers is to remain immature, but to face questions honestly and talk them through with the Lord is to grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ.”

Here’s what is helpful for me to recognize, that even though Jesus was willing to be honest and bold enough to say, ‘God, I’m not sure of this plan,’ He followed up with, ‘Nevertheless, not my will but yours.’ He is willing to say, ‘God, I’m going with you, Father, I am going with you, because to walk away is the worst thing I could possibly do in this circumstance.’

And that is so freeing for me because there are things in my life that I don’t understand, that I don’t get, that make me want to question the goodness of God. Sometimes grief and sorrow hit us unexpectedly. I’ve pounded my fist on the table so many time, even this past week, as God has resurrected places in my own life that I had just shoved under the table, shoved under the carpet in this kind of, ‘Well, my life isn’t nearly as bad as anyone else’s.’ And I’ve thought about things that have caused me to question God’s goodness. I’ve walked through cancer with my mom, I’ve walked through the deaths of childhood friends whose potential was ripped away from them by untimely death, I’ve walked through death of grandparents that were very meaningful to me. But the death of one person in particular caused me to seriously question God’s goodness. When I first met Marva Adams, she was the mom of my friends Christy and Leslie Adams, but as Ryan and I began to date, the relationship that we had with Greg and Marva went from parents of our friends to friends of ours. They became mentors, they became trusted role models, they became people that I could go to and ask questions, and I have a vivid memory, I have these vivid memories of getting the phone call from Christie and she was on her way to the hospital for what would prove to be the last time. I have vivid memories as I held it together so pastorally and professionally as I gathered their small group of friends at the food court at Ballston Common Mall to tell them that Marva had passed away. I remember the confidence and the freedom and the healing I experienced when Greg asked me if I would speak at the funeral about the impact that Marva had on my life. I remember passing directions out at friends at graveside to give them directions to the Adams’ house where we were all gathering for lunch. I was so thankful for something to do, but when there was nothing left to do, anger, confusion, questioning, it all hit. And it caught me off guard. There were people in my life that I had loved dearly that I had lost before and death never makes sense, but I had been able to make sense of those, but there was something about this situation in particular that I could not make sense of it, I didn’t want to make sense of it, I wanted to be angry, and it was coming in a season when I was trying to discern whether or not God was calling me to be a part of ministry full-time, and in that moment, I said, “God, forget it. I’ve prayed for a mentor for years and You brought this wonderfully amazing person into my life and You’ve taken her away, and You want me to go serve other people, I don’t think so.” And I began to shove that under the carpet. And guys I still fight with God over this issue. I fought with Him this week. Actually, it doesn’t feel as much like fighting as it does like Him standing there and me just pounding my fists into God’s chest. Sometimes I just with God would fight back. But the peace and comfort that I have found over and over and over again is in the gentle, persistent invitations from God to come bring it. Bring it. Every time I want to just get over it out of my own strength, God says, ‘Bring it.’ Every time I try to justify and say, ‘Well, it’s just not that big of a deal,’ God says, ‘Bring it.’ Every time I just try to say, ‘It’s really not that big of a deal, I’ll just deal with it,’ I don’t need to deal with it anymore, God says, ‘Bring it.’ And every time I have brought it, God has redefined my experience of it.

I don’t have a ‘why’ answer. God has never given me a ‘why’ answer, and I think it is because God doesn’t speak to us in these situations necessarily in the language of logic for our brains to be healed, He speaks to us in the language of the heart so that our souls can be healed. How do we respond when the circumstances in our lives contradict the character and the promises of God? We’ve got to come into his presence, it is the only place where we can find healing for our souls, and we may never ever be able to put it into words but we can allow Him to redefine something on the inside. How do we respond when God’s character and God’s actions in our lives contradict his character and his promises?

It’s interesting in Habakkuk 2, if you read on, you realize all the terrible, evil nasty things that are going to happen, and Habakkuk says, in verse 17: Will you let them get away with this forever? Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests? I will climb up into my watchtower now and wait and see what the Lord will say to me and how He will answer my complaints. There are lowly places that we sometimes have to go to. Habakkuk had to crawl up and this watchtower and just be with God and wait and see what answer he got. And God says: Write my answer in large clear letters on a tablet so that a runner can read it and tell everyone else that these things I plan won’t happen right away, but slowly, steadily, surely the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. It seems slow, wait patiently, for it will surely take place, it will not be delayed.

I think it’s interesting, we use this verse a lot of times to talk about good vision for our lives, right? God wants to give us good vision that we need to write down. In this particular case, there was a lot of bad vision that was happening first that God was telling Habakkuk to write down. As we move on in this, we begin to see Habakkuk’s response changing. As we continue reading Habakkuk 2, it is just over and over, all this crazy stuff that is going to happen. Habakkuk 3:2: I’ve heard all about You Lord and I am filled with awe by the amazing things You have done. In this time of our deep need, begin to help us as You did in years gone by. Show us your power to save us and in your anger, remember your mercy. If you go all the way down to verse 17, what happens between verse 2 and verse 17 is that Habakkuk reminds God of all the times He has helped his people in the past, and in verse 17: Even though the fig trees have no blossoms and there are no grapes on the vine and even though the olive crop failed and the fields lie empty and barren, even though the flocks die in the fields and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation, the sovereign Lord is my strength. He will make me as sure-footed as a deer and bring me safely over the mountain. Habakkuk’s circumstances have not changed. In fact, they are about to get a whole lot worse, but something has been redefined in him and he begins to rejoice, he begins to declare the goodness of God despite the circumstances that he sees around him. Again, this is not about giving steps, or principles that if you apply all of them, you will find freedom, this is one man’s response, but for some of us here, there are things we can pull out of this.

This first thing he says is, ‘Help us again as You did in years gone by, help us again.’ Pastor Mark threw out a question earlier this week as we were talking about this topic. He said, “Is suffering evidence that God doesn’t exist or is suffering evidence that Satan does exist?” See, a lot of times, people will throw out suffering to prove that God can’t exist, a good God can’t exist while this kind of stuff happens in our world. I would turn it around and say that God’s goodness and God’s fingerprints are all over this world, but there is evidence in suffering that Satan is alive and well and the liar and deceiver and the hater of our souls wants to cause disruption and chaos, and we have got to say, ‘Help us again Lord.’ We’ve got to keep record of the goodness of God in our lives. We’ve got to keep record of the fingerprints of God that we see in our lives and that we see in those around us, because those are some of the anchors that we have to hold onto in times when the circumstances around us seem to contradict those things that we know.

The second thing it says is that Habakkuk rejoiced in the God of his salvation. Habakkuk acknowledged that God was his salvation, he rejoiced in that. And what’s fascinating to me is that we have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of salvation than Habakkuk was ever able to because we live on the other side of the cross. We live on the other side of Jesus who hung suspended between heaven and hell and said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” And if you are here today, and you have not ever been to the cross, I urge you, come to the cross, because you have a Savior who understands your suffering. The book of Hebrews tell us: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet was without sin, let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. The book of Hebrews tell us that we will finish, we will finish what God has called us to do because we look to the Author and the Finisher of our faith who it says was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy He knew would be his afterwards. John Stott said, “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross, because we have a Savior who understand what we have gone through. We have a Savior who pleads on our behalf in front of the Father day in and day out. He is able to sympathize with us.

Reading the book of Hebrews might be helpful in times of suffering. Again, this isn’t a checklist, but Hebrews talks about our high priest, Jesus Christ, who has suffered for us.

Another thing we see Habakkuk doing is, he says, ‘The sovereign Lord is my strength.’ Sovereignty means that God is in charge and it means He is always in charge and will evermore, forever be in charge. Habakkuk rests on that. I think eternity puts things in perspective. Theologian Alister McGrath said this, “If the Christian hope of heaven is an illusion based upon lies, then it must be abandoned as misleading and deceitful. But if it is true, it must be embraced and allowed to transfigure our entire understanding of the place of suffering in life.” Every now and then, God brings us grace moments. One of them in my experience was the death of my granddaddy. My granddaddy was so important to me. If you want to hear me talk for a long time, ask me about my granddaddy. When he passed away, God spoke something to me so clearly. It was one of those inaudible but unmistakable moments. He passed away and God said to me, ‘Heather, you are going to see him soon.’ Now, that could’ve been really bad news for me, but the moment I heard it, I knew exactly what my Father was telling me. He was saying, ‘Heather, in light of eternity, you are going to see him soon. He is in the place where he lived to be, and as you look through the lens of life and you adjust the aperture so that eternity comes into focus, you will see him soon.’ We’ve got to live with eternity in our focus.

We read in 2 Corinthians 4:17: For our present troubles are quite small and won’t last very long, yet they produce for us immeasurably great glory that will last forever. So we don’t look at the troubles we can see right now, rather we look forward to what we have not yet seen, for the troubles we see will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever. We need to go into a place of grace where we allow God to redefine our experience, redefine our existence in light of eternity, declaring the goodness of God, ‘Help us again.’ ‘Help us’ may be the most important prayer you ever pray. Understanding your current circumstances at the foot of the cross, bringing it to the cross, being joyful in your salvation, declaring the hope we have in eternity.

We’ve been 31 minutes, covered all our bases, haven’t we? It’s just one man’s response, one man’s response when the circumstances in his life contradicted the character and the promises of God. Guys, Genesis 3 is when suffering entered the world. Revelation 21 is when it goes away. That’s the frame around the history of humanity. We are living in the in-between. When we read Revelation 21, this is what we read, verse 3-6: And I heard a loud shout from the throne saying, “Look, the home of God is now among his people, and He will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will remove all of their sorrows and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old world and its evils are gone forever.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making all things new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is finished. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”

We live in that in-between. Isaiah tells us that the earth is full of the glory of the Lord, but it’s actually in the book of Habakkuk that tells us that the time is coming when we will come into the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. The glory of the Lord surrounds us, but a time is coming when that full awareness and that full knowledge of his glory is coming and when our circumstances contradict his character and his promises, we have got to live in the perspective of eternity. All of have places in our lives that we need God to redefine. I can’t redefine them for you. Your friends can’t redefine them for you. Your pastors can’t redefine them for you. We have got to find spaces of grace where we can question God and we can beat our fists against his chest and say, “What are You doing in my life? What are You doing in the lives of the people that are dear to me?” Then we have got to muster the courage, and it might not be immediately. Redefining might take a long time, in cases it will take our entire lives, but we have to, in faith, step into places where we say, “God, help us again,” where we declare his goodness, we acknowledge his fingerprints of goodness in our lives, where we declare the joy that we have in salvation, not happiness, joy. That deep thing that happens in your gut when God redefines your experience, and we’ve got to have the courage to live with eternity in focus.

God help us. God help us. God help us, help us. God, for some of us, that’s as far as we can take it right now, help us. God I pray that your Holy Spirit would come now and create spaces of grace where You can bring redefinition, not redefinition that we can put into language of logic, but redefinition that changes something in our hearts, that we would recognize that the only place of healing is in You. Give us courage to throw tough questions up in your face. God give us the strength to pray, help us, as long as it takes. Give us the strength to find joy in our salvation, to bring it to the cross and to live with eternity in focus. God, we will bless your name. God, we will declare your goodness in spite of the circumstances around us, when the circumstances that surround us contradict what we know of You, we look to You to help us God. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Other Transcripts