Expect Opposition when God is at Work
It shouldn’t surprise us really. The Bible opens with God creating the world. Turn the page and Satan is trying to undo everything good. It’s a recurring pattern in the Bible you can recognize. There’s always opposition when God is at work.
On a recent plane ride I read through Esther and Nehemiah, two “Post-exilic” books in the Old Testament that feature heroes of faith. In each case the Jewish exiles took a courageous stand with God’s people and almost immediately faced immense opposition.
Esther served in the court of Persian King Xerxes (Ahasuerus), having been selected in a pageant held in the capital city Susa. Esther had favor in the eyes of the king and his court. Her cousin and adopted father Mordecai was a noble who showed his loyalty to the king by exposing an assassination attempt. But there was an enemy of the Jews named Haman, an ancient equivalent of Hitler, who was determined to exterminate the Jewish race from the Persian empire. For Esther to beg for their safety required accusing the king’s prime minister in front of him. The story is rich with intrigue and irony, but the outcome was far from certain when Esther arranges some special banquets with Xerxes and Haman. Esther’s faith and humility in prayer led to courage, cleverness and loyalty to God’s people…all in the face of aggressive and powerful opposition.
Nehemiah was a cupbearer in the court of Persian King Artaxerxes 1, Xerxes’ successor. When Nehemiah received word that the Jews back in Jerusalem were suffering, he couldn’t help but grieve. The king, aware of the sorrow, sent his servant home, putting royal resources at his disposal. This initial burst of favor was a boost, but as soon as Nehemiah set about the work of rebuilding Jerusalem, he was constantly challenged by local leaders. Five times Sanballat tried to undermine his work. The Jews had to build with tools in one hand and weapons in another. Clever traps were set by both enemies and “friends” – even a hired Hebrew prophetess! Nehemiah persevered with God’s help and, like Esther, a lot of humility, courage and cleverness.
These two stories follow a pattern that runs through the whole Bible. It’s almost predictable that those who follow God experience an initial measure of favor followed by opposition of various sorts. It happened to Joseph and Moses, to David and Job, to Jeremiah and Amos. The 50 or so ‘laments’ in psalms are the prayers of God’s people when they feel abandoned in the face of attacks and abuse. They cry out, “Where are you O God?” hoping for a response. That response is often delayed long enough to create a crisis of faith.
It turns out this pattern is at the heart of Jesus’ own ministry on earth; he cries out with the words of Lament Psalm 22 on the cross. The feeling of abandonment in this greatest moment of faithfulness is full of irony, yet, biblically, so inevitable. Jesus was obedient, even to death on the cross (Phil 2:8). He was made like his brothers in every way. (Heb 2:17)
The takeaway for us? As we celebrate the glorious outcome of Easter at the end of this season of Lent, let’s pay attention to the conflict and opposition that culminated in the agony of abandonment on Good Friday. Resurrection Sunday followed a prolonged darkness when Jesus descended into hell. So let’s expect nothing less when favor in our lives is followed by the persistent pressures and uncanny assaults from others around us, the unthinkable reversals, and the loss of reputation and security. This is the biblical crucible in which God’s mysterious sovereignty plays itself out and our faith is perfected. It is the way of the Cross. It is the way to Glory.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3)
For two short lectures on the pattern of “narrative lament,” see the following links in Study 2 (requires active subscription to view):