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When Life Is Hard

Finding God In A Tight Place

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 9, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

Are you in the middle of chaos? Are you facing some sort of hardship? Does it feel like the world is crashing down on you? If you’re facing any sort of trial or tribulation, you can be sure that you are where you are by divine appointment. God has you exactly where He wants you.

It is through hardship that we learn some of the best lessons God can teach us. But the key, sometimes a very difficult key, is to submit to God during the trial. When we think we can handle it, that’s precisely when we need to give everything to God.

We need to yield our weapons of rebellion, drop them at the feet of Jesus and allow God to work in us and through us.

I’m going to begin today with a story about a friend of mine who does not attend Moody Church and who gave me permission to share his story just so you know what he is currently going through. He’s had two employment opportunities in the past in the business world and in each instance promises that were made to him were not fulfilled. He tried to recoup what belonged to him in court but he was ruled against, recouping any of what he deserved. He’s been without a job for about a year and a half or two, I suspect, and so his house is in foreclosure. He’s going through a divorce. In fact, this past week he was in court over the divorce, which he hopes will be finalized. His wife is divorcing him. In the middle of this, one of his children has a serious addiction problem. Life is hard.

You are probably wondering how he’s doing and I’ll tell you how he’s doing at the end of the message, but first of all, I want to remind you that no matter what you are going through… You could stay here tonight and you could tell me your story and I would know this, that somebody else somewhere has a worse story to tell number one; and number two, somebody went through your trial and was totally successful. You are not alone in what you endure.

This morning on my computer there was an email regarding a student in one of our universities here in the United States who committed suicide because of sexual abuse that occurred in his youth. The darkness and the depression–if you are going through that, let me tell you that there is help. There are people who care. Whatever you do, don’t choose the suicide route but continue to believe and to connect with others who can pull you through those dark times because somebody somewhere went through what you’ve gone through and they’ve made it successfully.

Well, today in the second of this message series entitled “When Life is Hard,” I want you to take your Bibles and we’re going to be looking at a few passages in Exodus. I’m going to begin in chapter 1, and I want us to see how life was hard in those days for the children of Israel. I’m going to just pick it up simply in the middle of verse 14 of chapter one. Speaking of the Egyptians it says, “And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”

So first of all you have slavery. You also, though, have attempted genocide because you’ll notice that the king of Egypt said that the midwives were to kill all male infants that were born. They were to be thrown into the Nile River. Surely some of the midwives carried this out. Some didn’t because that’s the way Moses escaped, but you can see this. And by the way, the word genocide was coined to explain and describe what happened to the Armenians when the Turks invaded their country in 1915. Do you know that things were so bad that I was reading that when women were on their way to a death camp, some of them took their babies on the train, and as they were crossing a bridge over a river they took their babies and threw them out into the water, wanting them to drown rather than go through what they knew awaited them at the other end?

Life is hard. So here you have slavery. You have genocide, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, Moses eventually goes to the king and says, “Please let my people go,” and the king of Egypt is angry about it and you know what he does now. He says in Exodus 5:5, “’Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!’ The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose upon them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle.’”

Now just think! They were slaves. They worked morning to night and were beaten. The text says that they were sometimes beaten, and now suddenly they are told that they have to even gather their own straw and make the same quota of bricks. One burden is laid upon another. Tragedies oftentimes come in pairs, and may I ask you today what the straw is that you are asked to gather. What is that last straw that seems to break your back, the last thing in a series of hard times? Whatever it is, the children of Israel were forced to endure it. They had no opportunity for unions, no opportunity to redress the wrongs, no opportunity to argue that they should be paid more. They were locked into a terrible system and there they were. Times were hard.

Last time I mentioned to you that James MacDonald has a book entitled, When Life is Hard. I’ve not read it. I understand that it is very good, but there is a booklet that I did read. It is entitled, Red Sea Rules. The idea is that there are rules that you follow when you cross the Red Sea. It’s by a man by the name of Robert Morgan. It’s a little booklet and I found it helpful, and I have to say that some of the ideas that I will share with you today are actually inspired at least by that booklet.

What I’d like to do now is to give you a five-point program that you and I must follow when times are hard so that we can get through life and the hard times successfully. Are you ready for the five-point program that is going to help us? If life isn’t hard now, believe me, it will eventually become hard because all of us go through those deserts that we spoke about last time.

First of all, number one, you are where you are by divine appointment. Let me ask you the question, “Who was it that led the Israelites into Egypt?” It was God who kept them there. It was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he might impose more laws and more strictures upon the people, and demand from them more work. It was God. God told Moses in advance, “I’m going to harden Pharaoh’s heart. He’s not going to let you go. He’s going to make things worse.” It was all of God. You are where you are today by God’s will and purpose.

You say, “But Pastor Lutzer, it’s my fault. I did things that I should not have done. They were there because they had no choice. I had a choice and I made a series of bad choices.” A couple of things! First of all, if you deeply repent and turn from those bad choices, not only will God forgive you, but then you are going to have to experience what could be called self-forgiveness and you need to realize that at that moment God has you exactly where he wants you. You are where you are by divine appointment. And God knows exactly where you are. He knows the speed of the wind and the height of the waves. He knows the longitude and the latitude of your little boat. He knows every single slat on that boat and every frame of it, and he knows exactly and sees you, and today you are where you are by divine appointment.

Andrew Murray, a man from another era, was going through a very excruciating time and he wrote these words: “First of all, he brought me here. It is by his will that I am in this straight place. In that I will rest. Next he will keep me here in his love and give me grace to behave as his child. Then he will make the trial a blessing, teach me some lessons he intends me to learn, working in me the grace that he intends to bestow, and in his good time he can bring me out again; how and when he knows.” So in summary I am here by God’s appointment, in his keeping, under his training, for his time. You are where you are-exactly where God wants you.

Second, I think it’s important for us to realize that you must believe a divine promise. Now is the time that you cleave to the promises of God. Now let’s see how this works out. In chapter 6 God reveals to Moses that he is going to deliver his people. Your Bibles are open to chapter 6 and it says in verse 6, “Say there to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.”

So Moses is supposed to tell the people about the promise that God made. So that’s what Moses does in verse 9. “Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but…” You know what? I should read it this way: “Moses spoke to the people of Israel and they said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful. Now we can go to work tomorrow with a great deal of encouragement and hope because we know that God is on our side. We know that He is going to deliver us and we’re going to accept this gladly as God’s will.’” Ha ha. Verse 9 says, “Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”

They were cynical about this, and I believe that probably listening to me today, there are some of you who fit that category exactly. You are going through a time that is so hard. God seems so far away. That miracle that you have been expecting has not come year after year after year, something like Moses in the desert for 40 years, and you say to yourself, “What good are the promises? Where are they when I need them?” Well, as this message progresses it is my intention to help you to believe and to trust again, but what you really need is to remind yourself of the promises.

You say, “Well, what are some of the promises?” How do you like this one? “Keep your life free of money. Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave your nor forsake you.’ Therefore, God is my helper. I will not fear what man will do unto me.” Did you know that in that verse, “I will not leave you nor forsake you,” there are five negatives in the Greek text? I don’t know how to say it exactly but it would be something like this: “I will no not leave you. I will no never not forsake you.” Five times God says, “Never, never, never, never, never. I’m going to be with you through your experience.”

Now there’s a verse you should put onto your refrigerator. Did I already give you the reference? Of course everybody who has been saved six months knows the reference for that verse, don’t they? Just in case you don’t, it is Hebrews 13:5 and 6. God says, “I’m going to be with you.” There’s the divine presence. What about the divine intention? “All things work together for good to them that love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.” God has some good that he wants to bring out of your situation. God would never have you in the place where you are unless He intends it for your good. God can be believed and He is with you.

There’s a third point that we must do during those times when times are hard and that is you must cry up for divine help. Notice in chapter 2 we have the phrase that the children of Israel cried up to the Lord. I’m looking at Exodus 2:23: “Because of their slavery they cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard.” That expression is especially found in the Psalms. David repeatedly said, “And I cried unto the Lord in my desperation. I cried to the Lord.” Listen to his words in 2 Samuel: “In my distress I called upon God. To my God I called. From his temple he heard my voice and my cry came to his ears.”

You see, this isn’t just a regular kind of prayer. You know there are times when we say, “Oh God, bless me. Keep me safe. Give me a good day.” I mean, there are times when you can’t pray like that. There are times when life is so hard and everything is against you and you have to say like Peter who began to go down in the water, “Lord, save me.” It’s one of the shortest prayers in the Bible. There are times for short prayers–the prayer of desperation.

See, most people don’t pray unless they are desperate, and so God leads us into desperate situations. The Greek text and the Hebrew text that talk about crying up to the Lord are very intense. You are absolutely desperate and you cry up to God and pour out your soul before Him. It’s a sign of desperation, but it is also a sign of yieldedness. If you cry up to God, you are not only desperate but you are also saying, “God, anything. I surrender. I give up the weapons of a rebel.”

You see, in the book of Joshua we have a very interesting story. This is Joshua 7. Do you remember the Israelites go up against Ai and they are defeated? Three thousand men are dead and the Bible says Joshua fell on his face and cried up to the Lord. And do you know what the Lord God told him? He said, “Get up.” That’s what God said. It’s the only time I know of in the Bible when God interrupted somebody’s prayer and said, “Stop praying,” because He said, “There’s sin in Israel’s camp. Take care of the sin and then we’ll talk.”

If you are sleeping with your boyfriend, there’s really no use crying up to God for blessing. You can cry up to God as to how to get out of the destructive relationship, but when you cry to God it is a cry of saying, “God, whatever you demand I am willing to submit to.” Desperation and yieldedness!

Well, there’s another step that we must take, and that is that we must wait for divine timing. Now the Israelites had to wait. God says in Exodus 6, “I’m going to deliver you,” but the deliverance doesn’t come and God has to go through a series of plagues. He has to prepare the people. He has to work in the hearts of the Egyptians so that the Egyptians actually gave the children of Israel money, gave them all of their jewelry, all of their silver, and all of their trinkets. They gave them all to Israel, and so God needed time. By the way, why did God do that? You know, I am sure that when the Israelites finally left they thought to themselves, “What a windfall.” You know they were going into the homes there and the Egyptians were saying, “Oh, there’s a gold necklace. You want it? Well, take that. Take this one too,” and they thought to themselves, “Wow! Just to think we’re getting all of this gold and silver.” You know what God had in mind? He had the tabernacle in mind and that’s why the people were getting it. The people thought it was for them. They didn’t understand that any windfall is for the purpose of the kingdom. It is never for us, but anyway God had to take them through that, teach them the Passover. They had to go through the Red Sea all in God’s timetable.

The Bible says in Psalm 37, “My soul, wait thou on God.” He says, “My expectation comes from him.” That does not mean passivity. It doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything, but you are submitted to God’s timetable. Well you say, “What about those Israelites who died and never got to go? They were older. They never experienced deliverance.” That is true, but as we shall see in a moment, even they could have walked with confidence before God if they had only believed.

Yes, there are some trials that will never be taken from us. There are some things that you can pray for; it may be a health issue; it may be a relational issue. No matter how long you call on God (I think Paul’s thorn in the flesh dogged him until the day he died) God is doing something deep even when the trial stays, but we wait for his timing and not ours.

Finally, what’s most important is that we realize what the purpose of all this is. Why were the people there in Egypt going through such hard times? Why slavery? Why genocide? Why straw that you have to collect? I mean what’s going on in the text? Do you know what the whole thing funnels to? It all funnels to this. In chapter 14 when they were finally leaving and they are finally saying goodbye to Egypt and they are on their way, we read these interesting words. Exodus 14:15 says, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry to me? (Now there’s another instance in which God says, “You know there is a time to cry to me and then there’s a time to act.”) Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground, And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them (and there it is, folks–underline it in your Bible), and I will get glory over Pharaoh.’” Verse 18 says, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh.” That’s the whole purpose whether the Israelites saw it or not, and whether a person who was a slave understood it or didn’t understand it; God was after one thing and that is glory.

You say, “Are you telling me that God is willing to put people through slavery, God is willing to put people through excruciating circumstances even to the point of death just for His glory?” And the answer to that question is, “It depends on how much you value God.” If God is ultimately of ultimate value, in the end the answer is yes because nothing else really matters except his glory. And this morning before I got out of bed I prayed what I hope you pray every morning before you get out of bed. “Oh God, today glorify Yourself in me at my expense,” because there’s nothing else that matters.

Best illustration in the Bible! You have to turn to this. It’s in John 12. It is Jesus Himself who gives us an illustration and a powerful model to follow when we are going through pain and excruciating difficulty. Jesus knows that He is about to die in John 12 and He prays to His Father in verse 27. He says, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? (Shall I pray that?) But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Shall I pray that I’ll get out of this difficult situation, this tight place? Shall I pray for deliverance? Not if it’s not the Father’s will because there’s something more important than our happiness. There’s something even more important than our health. There’s something more important than all the things that we strive for and that is that ultimately we bow in submission and say, “In my life, Lord, be glorified at my expense.”

Let’s nail this down for ourselves even more specifically as we think about our own lives. I want to give you some implications, and the first one is quite long so I am going to repeat it maybe two or three times because I want you to write it down. The first implication is simply this: It is not necessary to see the big picture in order to believe that God has one. It’s not necessary to see the big picture as long as we can believe that God has one. In other words, sometimes we don’t see the purpose of it all, but we don’t have to if we believe that God has a purpose. That is sufficient.

Rebecca and I have seven beautiful grandchildren but actually we have eight. Our first granddaughter, Sarah, who would have been our oldest grandchild, was stillborn. She would have been a teenager now, and as we held her in our arms, my daughter, weeping, said, “Dad, why did this happen to us?” Wow! And I gave an answer I want you to write down because somebody may ask you a question like that sometime. It was perhaps the most profound theological answer I have ever given in my life. My answer was, “I don’t know.”

We don’t know all of God’s hidden purposes. We can’t read the fine print of His diary. We can’t see all of the purposes that God has in the death of a little girl who would have been so well taken care of. We don’t understand that, but we don’t have to understand in order to believe that there are purposes and that God’s way is best, and so often in life during hard times we don’t see the purposes. We don’t know the outcome. We don’t know all the hidden things that God is up to. But is God’s way best? Blessed is the person who says, “Yes, His way is best.” You don’t have to know. We live not by explanations but by promises, and there’s a big difference.

Second, I’d like to say that during a hard time, and actually during any time, we should spend more time looking up than we do looking around. If all that you do during a trial is to see the wind and the waves, and all that you see is unending boredom with no answers, it can certainly lead to despair and hopelessness. But if, in the midst of this we are committed to the Word of God, we are committed to His promises, we are deeply embedded in our pursuit of God, and we use all of the trials of life to get to know Him, even if it means a demotion, even if it means that our ministries are curtailed because we believe that God is bigger than all of this, when we begin to do that, even in the midst of our trials we discover God is there. When God really wants to prune us, He uses a knife and it hurts. Have you ever seen a gardener, a vine grower that has pruned the vine? In the middle of the floor–in the middle of the patch there’s all kinds of twigs that are deeply cut but he knows what he’s after–more fruit. “Cut back. I’m after something more important than what you can see.”

I quoted them before but I love the words of Spurgeon: “Oh blessed ax of sorrow that cuts a pathway to my God by chopping down the tall trees of human comfort.” It’s a pathway to God.

Finally, if you don’t submit to God in your trial the trial might be wasted. Not everybody passes a trial successfully, you know. There are those who go into unbelief. There are those who go into rebellion. There are those who go into all kinds of sins because they think, “Where is God anyway? I might as well forget about Him,” and so the trial does them no good. You see, in every trial Satan’s intention is to ruin you. God’s intention is to grow you. And that’s why I am preaching this message, because I want you to make the right decision in the midst of it.

I began this message by talking about a friend of mine who is out of work-stiffed (if we can put it that way) by two different employers and not getting what was due him, has a child struggling with an addiction, and his wife is divorcing him. He’s had a lot of physical problems. He was hospitalized a week or two ago because of mysterious issues that are going on within him. He is reduced to food stamps. Let me read you an email he sent just this week.

First of all, he says that as a kid he watched his father very closely because his father was a pastor and he said he wanted to see whether his father really believed God, whether or not he had the real deal. This friend of mine says he was at a meeting where his father was voted out of the church. He said, “I saw such anger in people’s faces. I couldn’t understand their reactions. So my father was out of the pulpit for a long time. He struggled.” He says, “We had very little money,” and he goes on to show and to illustrate what that little money meant. But then he goes on to say, “I noticed that my father’s faith remained firm and I knew it was for real.” His father wasn’t bitter. His father worked in other venues. And then he said, “I noticed even when my dad was in his final days and his mind was not fully there all the time that when he prayed it was like he was connecting to a power source different than at any other time. And he prayed with gusto, vigor and faith as he had done in his healthier times. I was amazed at the transformation that would occur whenever my dad would pray. When I was a kid I prayed that God would give me a double portion of my father’s spirit. Maybe these difficulties I’m going through are leading me to a double portion of his spirit, and maybe my kids will see in me what I saw in my father–someone totally committed to the Lord, and not wavering in his faith no matter what the difficulty is. In these difficult times I, too, have been humbled. In fact, I have been humbled many times for periods in my adult life. I have had to accept the fact that I failed, made bad decisions, succeeded in some things, failed in others, but I believe I have remained faithful and honest.”

And now he describes what life is like: “Now, more than ever, I feel empathy for other people’s struggles as never before. I’ve been taken into areas of society that I have tried to avoid. Manual labor is something I’ve always wanted to avoid but I’ve done it recently in odd jobs. I’ve been directed by God in recent months to do some of this. I have met men in different strata of the economy and social ladder. I have found people to love everywhere in every place I’ve been. I have been living with great reliance on a food pantry and food stamps. I get to feel what others feel when they are waiting to check out of a grocery store and the clerk says with a loud voice, “Oh, food stamps.” I get to feel what it is like to take cans of food and milk from the food pantry and have people see me carrying them out the door. In the midst of this God is working in my life. I’m greatly humbled before him.”

No matter what you are going through, remember this: Somebody somewhere someplace has gone through something worse that you are experiencing, and they held to their faith and they made it on the other side.

You know the illustration that I gave earlier about the children of Israel being in slavery? Actually in the Bible the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egypt is really a picture of our redemption. The Bible pictures us as slaves to sin. “If you obey sin you are its slave,” Jesus said. How many of you, whenever sin tells you to do something you do it? It doesn’t have to be an addiction, but you and I are slaves of sin, and it’s not Moses now that we believe (though we believe all that Moses said), but our deliverer is Jesus, the Bible says, who came to save his people from their sins.

I don’t want to end this message without giving an opportunity to those of you who don’t know God personally because you’ve never received Christ. And though you would not admit it likely, maybe the Holy Spirit has shown you that you’re a slave to sin, and you need to be purchased and redeemed by Christ. What you need to do is to open your life to Him and say, “Lord Jesus, I receive you as my Savior, my deliverer, my redeemer,” because that’s why He came.

So in this message there’s something for everybody, isn’t there? For those of you who haven’t gone through a trial, I hope you took notes, because one is on the way. For those of you who are going through a trial, you have the five-point program. And for those of you who don’t know Christ personally, you have the opportunity to believe.

Would you join me as we pray and would you pray please because God is watching and listening?

Father, we pray, help us to cleave to Your promises, to believe that we are where we are by divine appointment. Help us, Lord, we pray to wait for Your timing and to realize that at the end of the day nothing else matters except that You get glory through us for Your honor. Oh God, do that in us. Whatever work You desire to do now as your people pray to you, we ask that You shall hear them.

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