What do the “Harsh” Passages in the Bible Teach us about Dealing with Hurt and Pain?

Let me not be put to shame, Lord, for I call upon You; Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol. Let the lying lips be speechless. Which speak arrogantly against the righteous with pride and contempt- Psalm 31:17-18 NASB

About eighteen months ago I went through a situation that was ugly and unjust by any human standard.

Seriously.

 I will not be spilling the tea on all the details, suffice it to say it was a terrible deal that created a lot of unpleasant ripples in my life.  In the immediate aftermath I found myself completely shell-shocked and heartbroken by a situation I had zero control over.  

So,

I did something I have only done twice in my Christian life and only under the direst of emotional and spiritual circumstances: I cried out to the Lord and asked Him to give me comfort from His word. Then I opened my Bible fully expecting it to open to exactly what I needed in that moment. 

For the record, this is not a method I recommend.  It is certainly not the greatest way to discern God’s will, obtain answers to life’s greatest questions or even get comfort from Gods word. There’s a lot that could go wrong with this technique. The devil could certainly produce all kinds of mayhem with this sort of spiritual practice. Discernment is critical; therefore, this is NOT a spiritual practice I support as standard part of one’s devotional routine. 

All that being said:

 God is good and He deals graciously with His people where they are at in the moment. In that moment I felt overwhelmed, crushed in spirit and in desperate need of comfort. I needed to know God saw me and understood my situation. I wanted more than anything in the world to believe He was on my side. The Bible fell open to Psalm 35. Psalm 35 is a part of a collection of psalms known as the imprecatory or cursing psalms.  Following are the first eight verses: 

Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me;
Fight against those who fight against me.
Take hold of buckler and shield
And rise up as my help.Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who pursue me;
Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life;
Let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me.
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
With the angel of the Lord driving them on.Let their way be dark and slippery,
With the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
For they hid their net for me without cause;
Without cause they dug a pit for my soul.

Let destruction come upon him when he is unaware,
And let the net which he hid catch him;
Let him fall into that very destruction.

I will not lie.

That psalm was a salve to my weary, confused and broken soul. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I was seen, understood and loved by the God of the universe. At that moment I felt like God got me and He truly cared about the details of my situation. 

However,

It also raised a few questions in my mind. I had read the imprecatory psalms before but never really thought much about what those psalms mean for Christians. Like most Christians I have been taught to forgive, forget, let go of hurt and pain and trust God to deal with things in His way and timing (Romans 12:10, Matthew 6:12, Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 6:37). The whole notion God would be okay with me asking Him to fight for me and bring humiliation on my enemies was a bit appalling even in the state I was in. 

There are a total of twenty imprecatory psalms. The primary purpose of these psalms is to make a an appeal to God for judgment or to call down curses on one’s enemies. The New Testament assumes Christians will have have enemies (Matthew 5:43-44, Luke 19:43). Therefore, imprecatory passages are not unique to the book of Psalms or even the Old Testament. Jesus even quoted two precatory psalms (John 2:17, John 15:25).  Matthew 11:2-24, Matthew 23:33, Matthew 26:24, 1st Corinthians 16:22, Galatians 1:8-9, James 5:1-6 and Revelation 6:10 are all New Testament examples of imprecatory New Testament passages. 

So. Why would the Bible call down curses on people?

These passages have a greater purpose that just calling down curses on the jerks who hurt us. These passages are gift to us. They prove beyond a shadow of a doubt God sees our suffering and painThere are times when it can feel as if God is AWOL in the most critical of situations. When we are cheated, slandered or hurt by someone and nothing awful happens to the people who harmed us it FEELS as if God is ignoring our situation. The imprecatory passages remind us God SEES everything. There is no act of injustice, unfairness or inequality that is overlooked or ignored by God. The existence of these psalms serve as a much-needed reminder cares about our pain. God cares so much about our pain that He records the tears of the righteous on a scroll and stores their tears in bottles (Psalm 56:8, Isaiah 25:8, Psalm 116:7-9). 

There is a lot of comfort in that knowledge.

Each imprecatory passage reminds us God is not sitting idly by, twiddling His thumbs while terrible people do terrible things. Justice delayed does not mean justice denied. God is the author of justice. When the timing is perfect God will right every wrong and avenge every misdeed (Revelation 20:11-15, Jude 5-7, 2nd Peter 2:4-10). David authored many of imprecatory psalms as he was running from Saul and living as an outlaw. Each one stands as a reminder that God has a way of turning hopeless, painful, awful situations around in His timing. 

Ultimately, I believe the imprecatory passages to give Christians a healthy place to vent our pain to the one who understands it most and is most horrified by it. It’s critical to note, each one of the imprecatory psalms reaches a turning point in the lament where the author moves from cursing his enemies to expressing peace with the situation and faith God will deal with evil-doers appropriately. When read with faith the imprecatory psalms take us to the same place. 

How Does God use Persecution Suffering and Trouble for Good?

We celebrate in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope- Romans 5:2b-4 NASB

Suffering is ubiquitous in this life (John 16:33, 1st Peter 4:12).   Every human irrespective of race, socio-economic status or religious affiliation will suffer in some way

Sigh.

The Bible tells us humans suffer because we live in a world that was broken by sin, rebellion and evil. When Adam and Eve chose to blow off God, go their own way and do their own thing they did way more than become free moral agents, they opened the door wide for sin, evil and suffering to enter the world (Genesis 3:1-24). Misery, pain and difficulty have been hard-baked into the human condition ever since. For people who don’t know Jesus suffering just sucks. This life is a whole lot of pain with no real promise of hope or gain. In a good many cases life just sucks and then you die (Ecclesiastes 2:17).  Christians have hope beyond the hardness of this life. God does not cause suffering but He will (if we let Him) use it as a force for good in our lives (Romans 8:28, Romans 8:38-39).  

Here’s how it works:

God uses suffering to take us from one place to another- 

Oftentimes God uses suffering, persecution and trouble to take His people out of a less-than-productive but comfortable spiritual situation into a far less comfortable but much-more-productive spiritual situation.   Such was the case with the early church. The early days of Christianity were in many ways idyllic. The early Christians love for Jesus and each other enabled them to create a beautiful little faith community where everyone was loved and cared for (Acts 2:42-47). Nonetheless, early Christians did little (like no) evangelizing outside of the Jewish community (Acts 2-7).  If it hadn’t been for some really nasty persecution Christianity would likely have remained a small sect of Judaism. It would have likely died out by the end of the first century. The stoning of Stephan and the persecution that followed changed the trajectory of Christianity forever. That awful event forced Christians out of their idyllic existence (Acts 8:1) and as a direct result of their suffering the gospel spread all over the world. If you are a gentile Christian you have directly benefitted from their hardship. God does the same thing today. Oftentimes, persecution, personal tragedy or job loss is a catalyst for change that brings about a whole new level of spiritual usefulness in our lives.

God uses sinful behavior to reveal spiritual truth to the sinner-

 God does not make anyone treat anyone else badly. However, the way people behave reveals a lot about who they really are and what they’re all about. Such was the case with Saul. Saul was rejected by God as King (1st Samuel 15), then over the course of the next ten to fifteen years Saul caused David to suffer horribly by treating him very badly. When it was all said and done everyone (including Saul) knew he one-hundred-percent deserved to be rejected as King.  God uses bad behavior as mirror to help individuals see their sin. What they do with that knowledge is entirely up to them. All we are responsible for in these situations is our own response. We can respond like David did and allow difficult situations to refine us and prepare us for the next big blessing or we can become just like the jerks who hurt us (Ephesians 4:26, Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:30-31). 

Suffering produces wisdom-

Suffering and hardship cuts through the noise of life and makes us aware of all the things that really matter in life.  Suffering, pain and hardship cause us to cry out to God for help and wisdom in a way we just don’t in times of prosperity and ease. Anytime we ask God for wisdom two things happen: He gives it in abundance without finding fault and we grow closer to Him (Psalm 57:1-3, James 1:5, Proverbs 2:3-6)

Our suffering has the power to make us like Jesus- 

Suffering is hard. There is literally nothing fun about it. That being said, suffering is what makes us more like Jesus. In fact, suffering even made Jesus better (Hebrews 2:9-10, Hebrews 2:18, Hebrews 5:7-9) Suffering made Jesus more obedient, more able to sympathize with the pain of others, and more able to comfort the hurting (2ndCorinthians 1:5). Ultimately, it was Jesus’ suffering that gave Him glory in His resurrection (Luke 24:25-26, Romans 8:17) If we let it suffering does the same things for us that it did for Jesus. Suffering makes us better, kinder, more sympathetic and it gives us a better resurrection (Hebrews 11:35-38, Philippians 3:10-11, Revelation 20:6). 

We control how we respond to suffering.

We can shake our fists at God. We can let our personal pain transform us into harsh, angry, haters. Or we can allow God to take our suffering and transform us into something beautiful and precious. Faith is the key to becoming something beautiful in the midst of hardship. Hebrews eleven tells of those who lived by faith. All suffered. All were confused by their circumstances. Some were flogged and tortured. Some were imprisoned. Some even died for their faith. 

In spite of their circumstances the heroes of Hebrews eleven held tenaciously to the belief God is good. God’s assessment of these people is that they were so good and pure and beautiful this world was  literally not worthy of their presence. They trusted God with their suffering and He transformed them into spiritual gold. 

God is still in the business of doing beautiful things with hard situations.

What do 1st and 2nd Kings Teach us About how God Works in Tough Times?

Our wrongdoings testify against us, Lord, act for the sake of Your name! Our apostasies have indeed been many. We have sinned against You– Jeremiah 14:7 NASB 

A while back it dawned on me that I have been spending way too much of my Bible reading time in a few New Testament books. 

I was convicted it was time to broaden my horizons. 

So, I dusted off the books of 1st and 2nd Kings. The first few chapters of 1st Kings is mostly just palace intrigue. It tells the story of the the death of King David and the opportunistic scheming that occurred around his passing. The book reaches a high point early on with the installation of David’s son Solomon as his replacement. Solomon had a promising start. God blessed his efforts and Israel thrived economically and militarily under his leadership.  

It all kind of goes down-hill from there.

Despite his wisdom and obvious leadership ability, Solomon was a dismal failure when it came to all the things that really matter in life. The Kingdom split following his death and both Israel and Judah wandered far from God.  Most of the rest of 1st Kings is just a glum recounting of one bad, evil, idolatrous king after another bad, evil, idolatrous king. The book gets slightly more interesting with the introduction of the prophet Elijah in 1st Kings 17 but then 2nd Kings devolves into a serious of weird and disturbing stories that cover topics as diverse as floating ax heads and cannibalism. The weird stories are interspersed here and there with more sad stories of more terrible kings and their leadership foibles. In chapter seventeen Israel falls and is taken captive by Syria. King Hezekiah begins ruling Judah in chapter eighteen. Hezekiah and Josiah were the last of Judah’s even halfway decent kings. However, their leadership was not enough to keep the country from falling ever deeper into idolatry and ruin. King Nebuchadnezzar makes his first appearance in chapter twenty-four, his arrival on the scene ushers in the Babylonian captivity and the end of Jewish sovereignty. 

Sigh. This is why I like the New Testament.

I was surprised by just how bummed out I felt when I was finished reading the books. It wasn’t the first time I read either book. However, it was the first time either book hit me in such a soul-crushing kind of a way.  

As I sat in the sad feelings I did experience a couple of insights:

First.

The book of 1st Kings is basically just a long, sad recounting of Israel’s long slide into apostasy, unbelief and sin. 2nd Kings tells the story of how God worked in the lives of those who lived faithfully for God when everyone else turned their backs on Him.  The books hit me hard because I am also living in a season of apostasy. We don’t call it that, that of course, we call it “living in a post-Christian culture”, which sounds way nicer than “apostasy” but it’s basically the exact same thing. Whatever you call it, it sucks. It sucks living in a declining culture. It sucks watching the whole stupid world devolve into moral and intellectual chaos. It sucks seeing people degrade themselves with stupid ideas and even stupider behavior. It sucks watching people do everything possible to deny the reality of God. Most of all, it sucks feeling overwhelmed by the darkness and ugliness of a post-Christian world. 

That being said. 

There’s hope.

We aren’t Israel and God hasn’t left the building (metaphorically speaking of course). He’s still on His throne and He is still working in the hearts of His people, which means He is still working in our culture. Revival could be just around the corner. In the meantime, following are four lessons I gleaned about living in a post-Christian culture from 1st and 2nd Kings.  

Community is critical in tough times– 

In 1st and 2nd Kings God works most powerfully through little communities of prophets who banded together to support and encourage one another. Community, connection, partnership and close friendship is an ongoing theme throughout the book. The takeaway for contemporary believers is clear. The key to remaining spiritually strong and emotionally healthy while the world is literally going to hell around us is making Christian community a priority in our lives. 

When the going gets tough God shows off– 

All the depressing historical truths aside, one of the high points of both books is seeing God work among the believing remnant in 1st and 2nd Kings. From Mt. Caramel in 1st Kings 17 to the ax head incident in 2nd Kings. God showed His power and provided for His people in fresh new ways. It just makes sense to have hearts of faith and expect Him to do the same in our time. 

 God works in surprising places in dark times- 

One key theme of both 1st and 2nd Kings is provision for gentiles in general and gentile women in particular (1st Kings 17:9-20, 2nd Kings 4:1-37). Both books make it clear that when previously believing people turn their backs on God, He shows Himself in mighty and life-giving ways to people groups we wouldn’t necessarily expect Him to work through. I believe with all my heart we should expect a movement of God in unexpected places in the coming years. 

And finally: 

Relentless leaders bring hope and healing to a graceless age – 

Two bright spots in 2nd Kings are the stories of Hezekiah and Josiah. Both men were hardworking, tenacious, God-fearing leaders who had the insight to recognize the serious nature of times they lived in and the grit to do something about the problems at the root of Israel’s trouble. They understood it was idolatry and the sinful practices that accompany idolatry destroying the people they loved (2nd Kings 18:1-6, 2nd Kings 23:1-24). Their love for people, steadfast leadership and determination to serve God wholeheartedly resulted in revival that brought social change and kept judgment at bay. 

So. 

All that to say, one of the key takeaways from 1st and 2nd Kings is that God is always at work even in a post-Christian world that feels like it’s going to hell all around us.  Usually in ways we least expect. 

Staying Hopeful in a World of Injustice-

  There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground- Amos 5:7 NIV

  I have be listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The podcast chronicles the events that led to the fall of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It tells the story of Mark Driscoll as well as other leaders within the mega-church movement. The first-hand accounts of the pride, questionable doctrine and longing for celebrity endemic within the movement left me grieving for the body of Christ. The unjust and sometimes even evil actions of a few have forever sullied the name of Jesus and caused many to leave the church.  

This morning when I turned on the news the first story was about a mother whose son was killed in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The woman is angry about the death of her son and frustrated with how the government has handled every sordid detail of the withdrawal. So, she did what many of us do in 2021 when we are angry and frustrated. She went to a social media platform and vented her anger. Her thoughts were immediately censored on social media and shoved down the memory hole. The whole thing was wrong on a million different levels. A grief-stricken mother should be allowed to openly vent her anger. The people in charge should own their mistakes and the memory hole should be forever left on the pages of George Orwell’s book 1984.  

These are just two small examples of injustice and evil in our world. There are at least a million more out there. Injustice and evil have become ubiquitous. Truth is routinely twisted and lies have become so routine that in some situations it is really hard to know what’s actually true. We live in a time where good is called evil and evil is called good (Isaiah 5:20). 

The state of our world can leave even mature Christians feeling angry and bitter about bad leadership and lack of justice. Christ-followers are instructed to avoid the sin of bitterness at all costs (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:31), because it inevitably leads to attitudes and actions that have the power to defile every person in our circle of influence.  

There is no easy way to avoid feeling bitter towards unjust leaders.  However, there are four things we can do that will help us stay free of bitterness if we do them routinely: 

Remember nothing escapes God’- 

Because God is merciful, kind and eager for everyone to repent He does not punish every sin or sinner in real time (2nd Peter 3:9). This can sometimes make it look and feel as if God is unaware of injustice or that He doesn’t care about evil. If we believe the lie that God does not care we will either become bitter towards God and the world or we will join in with the sinners and sin our heads off. Both responses will cause us to lose our spiritual light and saltiness (Matthew 5:13-16, Matthew 3:10). If enough Christians lose their ability to be salt and light the brokenness and evil in this world will win. The key to staying holy and hopeful in these times is to hold onto the Bible promise that there will come a day when God will deal decisively with sin and those who have caused other people to sin (Mark 9:42, Romans 2:9-10, Revelation 20:11-15). 

Be the person this world needs right now- 

Seriously. Just do it. Choose to be the person who stands up for the oppressed and hurting, who fights obvious injustice and loves without limits. Love and righteousness are transformative. Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God is the key to a living a life God blesses (Psalm 11:7, Proverbs 21:15, Micah 6:8). Furthermore, choosing to enter the battle brings with it a sense of purpose that produces hope even in the toughest of times.

Don’t give into the temptation to be vengeful- 

Vengeance can take many forms that don’t include acts of physical violence. It can take the form of rude verbal or written retaliation (my biggest personal issue, sigh.). Vengeance can also include things like refusing to pray for or do good things for people we view as our enemies (Matthew 5: 38-41, Matthew 5:44).  Jesus directly commands us to pray for and do good to those who do us wrong. Refusing to obey Jesus always leads to hardness of heart that leads to both more sin and more personal misery. 

Pray-

Okay, I get it, encouraging people to pray while the world goes to hell in a hand cart sounds trite and feels like a copout. However, prayer is anything but a copout. Prayer is the most transformative act on earth. I do not know or understand all the particulars on how prayer works. But it does. Prayer doesn’t just transform situations it also transforms the heart of the person praying. Prayer, done consistently and in faith gives the person praying an awareness of God’s presence.  Awareness of God’s presence always leads to a love for others and a sense of hope for the future. 

There is no sense sugar coating the situation: life sucks on a bunch of different levels right now. Righteousness, justice and good leadership are in short supply. The one good thing about dark times is it does give us almost unlimited opportunities to shine our light in the darkness. When we choose to shine Jesus’ light we become a part of the solution.