How to survive tough times
Recently we saw the terror and devastation of bush fires in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It was a tough time for those in the path of the fire. They didn’t get much warning and had to escape for their lives. Afterwards, some returned to see their house in ruins. They searched through the rubble to recover what they could. What if our house and belongings are destroyed in a fire?
How do we respond when our dreams are shattered? When our relationships break down? When our health is threatened? Or when we are overcome by the emptiness of loneliness? Do we plunge into depression, despair and discouragement when there is disappointment, stress or tragedy? What can help us get through tough times?
Some say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. But we will see that this is not God’s way. Today we are looking at how to survive tough times. We will see from Ezekiel’s vision that, because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times (Ezek. 37:1-14).
In particular, so we can survive tough times we will determine: Who will God rescue? How will God rescue? And when will God rescue?
Ezekiel was a Jew captive in Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC was a tragedy for the Jews. Everything they lived for was gone and the Babylonian gods had triumphed over their God. They were devastated. The Bible says they had bitter memories in Babylon, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-4NIV). They could no longer sing the songs of Jerusalem or play their musical instruments. Jeremiah described their misery; “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 3:48).
The verses before the vision say they were scattered and in exile because of their murder and idolatry (36:16-21) and they also predict Israel’s restoration (36:22-38). The Jews will return to Israel from other countries. There will be a great spiritual revival and prosperity and other people will acknowledge God. God does the restoration, which is associated with their repentance. The words “I will”, are mentioned 15 times in 15 verses. He will give them a new heart, a new spirit and forgive their sins.
The verses after the vision also predict Israel’s restoration (37:15-28). The Jews from both Israel and Judah will return to Israel from other countries. They will have one king, “my servant David”, who is Jesus Christ, a descendant of David. They will live as God’s people and there will be no more idolatry. The result is that once again God will be their God and they will be His people (37:27).
The vision of the dry bones is about the restoration and revival of the Jewish nation because it’s mentioned both before and after the vision. After they were plundered, scattered and captured it looked like the end of the Jews. It was a hopeless situation. But God said no; I will intervene.
Who will God rescue?
Ezekiel’s vision is a valley full of dry bones. They had been dead a long time. There was no life in them. Then God brings them back to life, first as a body lying on the ground and then as a body with breath that stands up. God says, “these bones are the people of Israel” and He calls them “my people” (v.11). They had been slain in battle and they rose as a vast army (v.9-10). It’s a picture of Israel’s army slain by the Babylonians.
What else do the dry bones symbolise? In the vision they say “our hope is gone, we are cut off” (v.11). The dry bones illustrate the hopelessness of the Jews in Babylon. They are over 1,000 km from their homeland and their capital city and temple has been destroyed. Although they are God’s special people they are spiritually dead with nothing to live for. Every day they are reminded of the demise of their nation and the Babylonian victory. They are captive in a foreign land with a foreign language (Jer. 5:15).
So, who will God rescue? His people. They will be rescued because they are God’s people, not because of anything else that they had done. Because of this promise they can survive tough times.
In 1980, 52 Americans were hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran in Iran for 444 days. They were treated cruelly, beaten, placed in solitary confinement and threatened with execution. An American military operation planned to rescue them, but this was aborted after a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft. In tough times we can feel like a hostage in a foreign land in a hopeless situation. It’s not unusual.
Christians are the people of God today (1 Pt. 2:9-10). The Bible says we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). And we will also be rescued because we are God’s people, not because of anything we have done. Like the Jews in Babylon, because of this promise we can survive tough times.
Now we know who God will rescue. But how will he rescue them?
How will God rescue?
In Ezekiel’s vision, God says how it will happen;“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life” (v.5-6). Also, “ I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). Notice that “I will” is mentioned 5 times. So it’s all God’s doing, they had no part in it. They didn’t deserve it. He rescues them when they are in a seemingly hopeless situation and unable to rescue themselves. He’s a God of grace. God does the restoration and brings them to repentance after Ezekiel called them to repent (33:11; 36:31).
In the rescue they would return to their homeland and there would be a spiritual revival. God used an illustration to help them understand it. He said, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them” (v.12). The rescue will be like a resurrection, where a dead body comes back to life. It’s a radical change, from exile to their homeland and from spiritual death to spiritual life. The prospect of the rescue gave them encouragement and strength to endure the tough times.
It’s all part of the big picture in the Bible of God rescuing people from their sinful ways. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, people are spiritually dead. At that time, God promised that He would defeat Satan. Since then He has carried out His rescue plan. For example, He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After the times of king David, God promised the Israelites that a Messiah would come to lead them. He was the servant-king predicted by Isaiah (Is. 42, 49, 50, 52-53). The New Testament shows that Jesus was this Suffering Servant (Mt. 12:14-21). This shows why God will rescue. It’s because it’s His main plan for humanity and the universe. To restore it to be like He made it in the beginning. It’s part of His character. He’s a rescuing God.
God also promises that Christians will return to their homeland (Jn. 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21). But our home is not Jerusalem, but heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:22-24). This rescue will include resurrection, when the dead come back to life (1 Cor. 15:50-55). And it won’t be a botched rescue, because it will be by the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In this way, Christ is our Rescuer and Savior. This promise helps us survive tough times.
What about the promise of spiritual revival? When a person turns around to follow Jesus, they undergo a spiritual revival. They are now “in Christ”, a new creation and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:17). Because of their spiritual revival, Christians can survive tough times (1 Cor. 10:13).
Now we know who God will rescue and how he will do it. But when will He rescue His people?
When will God rescue?
In Ezekiel’s vision, God says when it will happen, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). It’s when they return to their homeland and are spiritually revived. This happened in part when some returned to Israel in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. God used the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and allow these Jews to return to Jerusalem (Is. 45:1-8).
But the full extent of their restoration is yet to come; when their land will be like the garden of Eden (36:35), when all the 12 tribes will be united (37:15-22), and when their king will once again be a descendant of David (37:24-23). So there was a partial rescue after the exile, but their complete rescue is yet to come. Maybe this was illustrated in the vision when the bones came to life in two stages.
In 2006, two miners were rescued from a gold mine in Beaconsfield in Tasmania after being trapped underground for 14 days. When we go through tough times, we can feel trapped in a dark place with no way out. There were two stages to their rescue. First a 90mm hole was drilled to give them food, fresh water and for communication. Second a 1m hole was drilled to enable some miners to crawl in and get them out. In the first stage they were sustained. In the second stage they were released.
Likewise there are two stages to our rescue. First, through God’s power when we chose to turn around and follow Jesus, we are rescued spiritually. We change from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Second, through God’s power when we die, our spirits go to be with the Lord and when Christ returns our bodies will be resurrected and changed (1 Cor. 15:50-55). So the two stages of our rescue are a spiritual revival, which sustains us in tough times; followed by a homecoming, which releases us from the tough times. At present we are half way. We can look back to stage one and ahead to stage two.
So, because through Christ’s death and resurrection Christians have spiritual life which sustains us, we can survive tough times. And because of the promise of being with the Lord and released, we can survive tough times. Clearly we can only survive tough times, in God’s power.
If you lack this power to get through tough times, then this is a reason to turn your life around to follow Jesus. The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” is wrong because we don’t need to toughen up and work hard to survive tough times. Instead, let’s rely on God’s saving power in Christ and His sustaining power in the Holy Spirit.
It would be wrong to use Ezekiel’s vision to claim that God will remove our tough times on earth. Ezekiel probably died in Babylon before the partial return to the homeland (he would have been ~85 years of age if still alive when the first exiles returned to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC). Even though he didn’t reach stage 1 of the rescue, the promise helped him endure the tough times. Recently I spoke to a believer struggling with a chronic disease. He felt he had nothing to live for. He was disappointed in God, saying, “What’s God doing about it? It would be a great witness if I was healed”. In the Bible Abraham told the rich man in Hades, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16:29-31). People are not convinced by miracles. How often do we pray for a miracle, when God promises survival through tough times on earth, not removal of these tough times? After all, we are in stage 1 of the rescue, not stage 2.
Because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times
So let’s remember the vision of the dry bones that came back to life. When they were doing it tough in Babylon in the darkest period of their history, God gave the Jews comfort and strength. Because He promised to rescue them, they survived the tough times. Some of them returned to Israel and Christ was born about 500 years later. After another 2,000 years more Jews have returned to Israel and it is a nation once again. And God has promised there will be a spiritual revival when they recognise Christ as their Messiah in a coming day.
Because God is a rescuer, we can survive tough times. We have seen:
– Who He rescues: His people. In future, all believers will be fully rescued from their tough times.
– How He rescues: by spiritual revival and bringing us home.
– And when He rescues: partially now and fully later.
He has already rescued us and promises to rescue us even more in the future. This gives us encouragement and strength. Remember this promise when you are going through tough times.
Because we know that God will rescue us, we can survive tough times.
Written, November 2013
The dangers of backsliding
How many people continue to follow Jesus as their life progresses? Unfortunately some people who seem to start well in the Christian faith don’t finish well. What does the Bible say about those who turn away from God?
A backslider stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life. They desert the Christian faith and are unfaithful and unfruitful. It’s the opposite of repentance and conversion which is turning towards God. It’s also different to apostasy, which is when unbelievers become enemies of Christ after they were associated with the Christian faith (1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pt. 2:20-22; 1 Jn. 5:16-17).
Let’s look at how we can avoid backsliding and recover from backsliding in our Christian life.
King Saul had some natural advantages in life: he was handsome and a head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). When Saul was looking for his father’s lost donkeys, he met Samuel the prophet. At this time Samuel privately anointed Saul as king of Israel (1 Sam. 10:1). After this he received power from God and prophesised – He gave God’s message to the people (1 Sam. 10:6, 9-11). Then Samuel summoned the nation and went through a selection process until Saul was publicly declared to be the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 10:17-24). The people celebrated and shouted, “Long live the king”.
When Saul heard that the Ammonites had besieged the city of Jabesh Gilead, he organised an army of 330,000 men and defeated them (1 Sam. 11:1-11). Then the Israelites celebrated again and renewed their allegiance to God and confirmed Saul as their king (1 Sam. 11:14-15). This was the pinnacle of Saul’s life.
Samuel told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal and Samuel would come and offer sacrifices to God (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:7-15). When Saul became impatient, he disobeyed Samuel and God by offering the sacrifices himself and Samuel rebuked him. Only Levites were allowed to offer sacrifices and Saul was a Benjamite. That was the beginning of his backsliding. It was the first of several sins that resulted in him being replaced by David as king of Israel.
Saul had many military victories, but when he foolishly told his troops not to eat food, the enemy Philistines escaped (1 Sam. 14:24, 26, 47-48). Then Saul disobeyed God again by keeping the best animals and sparing the king when they defeated the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3, 9, 20). Then he proudly set up a monument in his own honor instead of acknowledging God (1 Sam. 15:12). The Bible says that he turned away from God (1 Sam. 15:10). Because he rejected God, God rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:23).
After David defeated Goliath, Saul became extremely jealous of David and tried to kill him several times (1 Sam, 18:8-11, 28-29; 19:9-24). Then Saul chased him all around the land of Israel (1 Sam 18-26). During this time he had 85 priests killed, including the high Priest, because they helped David to escape (1 Sam. 22:6-23).
When he was afraid of the Philistines, Saul consulted the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-20). Finally when Saul was critically injured in battle he killed himself (1 Sam. 31:1-4).
So we have seen the rise and fall of king Saul because he turned away from God.
The same happened to king Solomon who turned away from God to idolatry after he married foreign women (1 Ki. 11:1-13). It says “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and “The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord”. Both kings started well, but didn’t finish well. And this is shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time.
Kings of Judah
Some of the kings of Judah also began well, but didn’t finish well.
Joash ruled for 40 years from the age of seven years. While his uncle the High Priest was alive, he followed God (2 Chron. 24:1-16). During this time he repaired the temple. But after Jehoiada died Joash forsook God and worshipped idols (2 Chron. 24:17-27). When they were rebuked by the new High Priest, Joash had him killed. Then they were defeated by their enemies and Joash was assassinated. So his reign had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness. And this is shown in the graph of his spiritual state against time.
His son Amaziah who reigned for 29 years followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 25:1-13). During this period he obeyed God by dismissing the troops he had hired from the kingdom of Israel and defeated his enemies. But then he “turned away from following the Lord” and worshipped idols, attacked Israel and was defeated, and was assassinated (2 Chron. 25:14-24). So his reign had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
His son Uzziah who reigned for 52 years also followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 26:1-15). But afterwards “his pride led to his downfall” and he disobeyed God by taking a priestly role and was punished with leprosy and was banished from the palace for the rest of his life (2 Chron. 26:16-21). So his reign also had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
Asa who ruled earlier for 41 years also followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Ki. 15:11-15). Later he relied on a foreign king instead of on God, he imprisoned the prophet who rebuked him and he oppressed the people (2 Chron. 16:2-12). So his reign also had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
All these kings of Judah started well, but didn’t finish well as shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time. They turned away from following the Lord.
Backsliding also occurred in New Testament times. The Galatians turned against the gospel by following Jewish legalism (Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11). They deserted God to follow a false gospel. False teaching and false teachers can deceive us. The Corinthians tolerated sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). They were not concerned and carried on as though it didn’t matter.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Ti. 4:9-10). It looks like Demas deserted Paul because he feared imprisonment and he loved this sinful world.
The cause of backsliding
Backsliding is when we stop following Christ. In this world, we’re all prone to failure. We all sin. Saul’s sin of disobedience was the beginning of his turning away from God. Sin is the source of backsliding. Sin is attractive, but it separates us from God.
Backsliding is a gradual process (a sliding back to a previous sinful condition). Remember Lot liked the fertile plain, then he settled near the city of Sodom, but he eventually moved into the city and became a city councillor. It was a gradual process.
The consequences of backsliding
Backsliding has a great impact on people’s lives and their family. Compare the lives of Lot and Abraham. God used Abraham and his descendants greatly, whereas Lot’s family were doomed. If we turn away from God we lose our personal relationship with the Lord (1 Jn. 1:6) and peace and joy and the assurance of God’s presence and His answer to our prayers (Ps. 66:18). It can also result in sickness and death (1 Cor. 11:30-32). There can be severe ongoing consequences even though a sin has been forgiven. For example, David’s grief with the death of Bathsheba’s baby son. And when we get to heaven we miss out on being rewarded by the Lord for our faithfulness (1 Cor. 3:15; 2 Jn 8).
Jesus said, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn. 15:6). The sin of backsliding ruins a person’s Christian testimony and witness. Instead of remaining in touch with the Lord and demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit and bearing fruit, there is sinfulness and people ridicule them and their God.
These consequences are the dangers of backsliding.
The cure of backsliding
Like Saul, David failed when he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11). But he did something about it. Not all sin leads to backsliding and turning against God for an appreciable period of time. David confessed and repented (Ps. 32:1-5; 40:1-8; 51:1-19). He called out to God, acknowledged all the wrong things that he had done and turned around to follow God once again.
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:1-5). David experienced God’s mercy of forgiveness (v.1-2). He suffered when he refused to acknowledge his sin (v.3-4). But there was relief when he confessed his sin (v.5).
Likewise king Hezekiah repented of the sin of pride (2 Ch. 32:25-26). This contrast between Saul who backslid and David and Hezekiah who repented is shown in shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time. David and Hezekiah were restored to fellowship once again. Saul was not.
David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:1-3). “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8). His path was corrected and his relationship with God was restored. What a contrast to Saul who turned far away from God.
We will now look at the steps in the process of restoration, which will be illustrated in a diagram.
Conviction. The first step is to admit our sins instead of excusing them. Peter was convicted after he denied the Lord three times. The Bible says he wept bitterly (Mt. 26:75).
Confession. The next step is to confess our sin (1 Jn. 1:9). David said “I have sinned against the Lord” (12 Sam. 12:13).
Repentance. The next step is to change direction and turn around to follow God one again. It involves completely changed attitudes and behaviour. It is more than confessions or remorse. The Bible says it’s having a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 18:30-32). The churches in Revelation were urged to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19).
Forgiveness. After we are convicted and confess and repent, God offers forgiveness. He has great mercy. David was told “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). There are three kinds of forgiveness mentioned in the Bible.
God’s judicial forgiveness. God is a judge of all those who have never trusted in Him. This forgiveness removes the barrier to heaven. It is when an unbeliever comes to faith in Christ. If we acknowledge our sinfulness and believe that Jesus paid the penalty for us, then we are viewed as God’s children. Have you experienced this kind of forgiveness? If not, why not start following the Lord by confessing your sins and trusting Christ as Savior?
God’s parental forgiveness. God is a father of all those who have trusted in Him. This forgiveness restores a believer’s fellowship with God after it has been severed by sin. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
Christians need to do this regularly. For example, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11: 28-29). This says we need to examine ourselves before participating in the Lord’s supper. It means admitting our sins and confessing them so our relationships can be restored with each other and with God. When they came together in Corinth, they were being selfish by discriminating against the poor (1 Cor. 11:20-21, 30-32). Their judgment was sickness and premature death, which was the Lord’s discipline. If we examine ourselves and get right with God, we will not come under His discipline. That’s why the Christian life should be full of confession. So our relationship with the Lord can be restored. The Christian life is full of restarts. Each of these involves conviction of sin, confession of sin and repentance to put things right.
Forgiving one another. This restores fellowship between believers. God cannot forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive one another (Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37). We are to forgive others when they acknowledge their wrongs (Mt. 18:15-17; Lk. 17:1-10).
After a backslider has been sorry for their sins and repented, then as God has forgiven them they should be forgiven and restored to Christian fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Restoration. Once we are forgiven, we are restored to following Christ once again. This should be a time for celebration, like when the prodigal son returned home (Lk. 15:22-24).
Lessons for us
We have seen how to get right with God and how to stay right with God. How to draw near to God. How to be close to the Lord. And they are the same!
What does the graph of our spiritual state against time look like? Have we started by following Jesus in the first place? If yes, have we turned away from Him? Have we responded by taking the steps to restoration?
James encourages us to pray for backsliders like Elijah prayed for the kingdom of Israel who worshipped idols (Jas. 5:16-20). Such people wander from the truth and commit many sins. If someone helps them to confess their sins and repent by turning around to follow the Lord once again, then their sins will be forgiven and they will be saved from dying prematurely under God’s judgment. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. Paul also urged us to help restore a believer “caught in a sin” (Gal. 6:1-2).
Let’s be aware of our sinfulness. The Israelites were warned that when they became prosperous they would become proud and forget the Lord (Dt. 8:10-14). That is a big risk for most of us because we have food, houses, money and possessions. We are well off compared to most people in the world.
Saul’s backsliding began with an act of disobedience which led to a life of sinful behaviour. Sin is dangerous. It grows. Let’s respond to sin like David and practice conviction, confession and repentance. If we have wandered from the Lord, it’s good to know there is a way back. We can always turn around to follow the Lord once again. We can be restored like the prodigal son.
When we sin we don’t have to backslide because God has provided a way to turn back to Him.
Let’s be loyal to the Lord and finish well.
Written, Sep 2013