king of the trenches

The person who has never doubted the goodness of God either lives in denial, or has never suffered even so much as a headache. Sometimes the most sincere, trusting believers wrestle with doubt and fear and anguish due to unanswered prayers, unaddressed issues of injustice, and fearful trouble.

When circumstances scream that we have been left on our own, it seems easy to doubt God—or become angry with him—because he did not do a certain thing or answer our prayers a certain way or make things work out the way they ought to. We think: If I were God, I would never let _____ happen! So we try to be faithful and trusting, but we harbor secret doubt in the deep recesses of our souls. Is Christianity really true? Maybe it is for some people but not so much for me. Or perhaps I don’t have enough faith. Or I haven’t believed correctly. Maybe my faith isn’t strong enough.

And maybe—just maybe—the wickedness of my past has shipwrecked my life.

In 1 Kings 20, we read that Ben-Hadad, king of Syria, had formed an alliance with a number of other city-states, conquered much of Israel, and then besieged Samaria in order gain its wealth, taking the silver, the gold, and the loveliest of their wives and children.

King Ahab was aware that his army was no match for the one assembled by Ben-Hadad. But an unnamed prophet appeared, promised victory to the king, and outlined how the battle was to be fought. The king listened and obeyed (for once), and Israel triumphed, recognizing that their victory didn’t come from their own strength, but from the hand of God.

The Syrians also understood that they had been defeated because God helped Israel. But servants of Ben-Hadad believed that it was because the battle occurred in the hill country, and they devised a plan for victory:

Then the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight against them in the valley, surely we will be stronger than they” (1 Kings 20:23).

Do we think as the Syrians thought? Is he God of the hills, but not the valleys? Is he God only when prayers are answered, and we dwell in security and comfort, and we are kept safe from every enemy? Is he God only when our souls are satisfied and we are healthy and happy? If we are walking in faith and obedience, is that when he is God?

Could he also be God when, without warning, life spirals into sheer wretched cruelty and decimates our world with shocking suddenness? Is God truly aware when we are sick and hurting, yet we are not healed? Is God truly YHVH-Yireh—our Provider—when we don’t have enough money and we face financial ruin? Is he really our God who cares when loved ones suffer horrific injustice  for no good reason?

God of the hills only? Could the Creator of life also be God of the drug addict, dying in the gutter covered in vomit, or God of the young girl abducted and raped and left to die in her own blood? Is the LORD of purity capable of being God of the pedophile, the murderer, the human trafficker? Is he God Almighty when powerful, wicked rulers oppress their weak and innocent citizens, stealing their dignity and hope? Is our God still good when the immoral sewage of our self-serving culture has swamped our homes and poisoned the minds of our young people with perversion?

Is he God when all life seems dark and hopeless and there is no reason to suffer another moment with unending, searing, soul-shredding agony?

Scripture is brutally honest about our world and its terrible pain and suffering. We are told that all creation is in a state of catastrophic brokenness, and any relationship we might have had with our Creator has been ravaged by rebellion and selfishness. We want to think we are basically “good”–for instance, many years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People–but when we look at society, we see it spiraling into chaos, bloody with hatred and violence and fear. We realize, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, that “something is terribly wrong and needs to be set right.”

The pronouncements of atheists and evolutionists and nihilists in our culture are wrong. We are not products of blind chance, clawing for the fittest to survive a few pointless years, destined for oblivion. Deep within, we know there is more to life than this and we agree that the wrong must be made right.

And because we were helpless, and because we were hopeless, God himself stepped in to our world, suffering humiliation more dreadful than any damnable human valley of death.

God of the hills only? No, he is also God of the valleys. Jesus swallowed death and destruction for us all. He surrendered himself to the dread horror of sin and out of mercy for us, bore our state of helplessness in the assault of unrelenting, violent Evil. His body was sliced by every torture we could devise, yet he cried out, over and over, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” proving that he would not abandon us to our selfishness and utter cruelty. He is able to comfort the most wretched, heal the most damaged, and deliver the darkest and most depraved of us.

If I ascend into heaven, or dig down to bed myself in hell—there you are!
If I say “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.” (Psalm 139:8, 11-12)

The great I AM is not a “tribal god.” He is Lord of the Hills and Lord of the Valleys, Lord of all existence, creator of heaven and earth. He does not compete with the dark powers of sin and satan; he has utterly triumphed over them through the cross. He will not bow to our systems and customs and governments. He is the infinite One who loves us with burning passion. His purity cannot be tainted by uncleanness and his holiness is greater by far than any contagion of our sin. The blackest human darkness is not dark to him. He is able to “save to the uttermost” anyone who will call on him for mercy. “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men” (C.S. Lewis) and his mercy is everlasting, stretching to a thousand generations. Outside of time, and beyond eternity, he knows what he has determined and he will cause it to be.

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The king of Syria believed that God was limited in what he could perform. “Ben-Hadad” was not his name, but a title for the king meaning “son of Hadad,” son of the “god” of the realm; a god of storm and thunder.

When life and circumstance howl and rage against us, when the “storm” and “thunder” of darkness and violence seem overwhelming, when evil desires to crush all the earth in its iron grip, we recall that it is our God who is Lord of everything. All authority and power has been given to Jesus, the holder of the keys of hell and death. He is not limited in his love, his goodness, his kindness, or his power to comfort and heal and save. No matter the desperation, no matter the darkness, no matter the valley, he is with us, his love is our light, and his presence is an impregnable fortress of mercy!

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