Month: August 2020

The Years the Locusts have Eaten

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Photo by Egor Kamelev on

Our oldest living grandparents have never seen anything like this. The alcoholics can’t drink it away or numb it. It’s making history and parents imagine what they’ll tell their children or their children’s children in days to come. A new dread has overtaken the land—so unknown that people feel powerless in its wake. The grief for all that’s been lost is so painful it feels like a virgin widow mourning her husband instead of enjoying her wedding night. Our pockets are so empty there is nothing to put in the church’s offering plate. The store shelves and market stands are empty. Our joy feels withered, like fruit on the vine in drought.

Worldwide 21st century pandemic, or the first chapter of Joel? Both.

The Old Testament prophecies of Joel are easy to overlook. It’s a short, 3-chapter book in the minor prophets about a locust plague that decimated the land and its people. It’s very apocalyptic and, honestly, hard to relate to—that is, unless you’ve lived through a global calamity yourself.

Reading Joel in the shadow of international tragedy was a unique experience. The first half chapter summarized above left me wide-eyed with shock. This ancient text came alive now that I shared a similar experience with its original audience. The first chapter goes on to describe religious leaders in open anguish before their people, and fasting and repentance because no one knows why calamity has struck except for our sin. The food sources are dried up. The land and its people and animals all go hungry and are left parched. There’s a fair bit of aimless wandering, widespread suffering, and storehouses and gathering places left empty and in ruins.

All of those experiences sound so familiar. No matter how much bread we bake or research we read, we can’t ignore that we still don’t understand what is happening around our world, nor how to stop it or minimize the damage. Our economies are crashing. Our marketplaces have empty shelves too. Our religious leaders desperately try to point us back to God, but the places of worship lie empty. Here in Uganda I’ve seen the empty market stalls. The land isn’t suffering here, as under a drought, but the livestock are thinner and sicker as limited resources have been given to people instead of land and animals.

Joel closes chapter 1 speaking about fire that has devoured the fields. We joke about our world being on fire. We have seen protests and riots, because the world has slowed down its spin enough for us to step back and notice our oppressive systems. Violent and opportunistic crime is on the rise as people become more desperate with hunger and poverty. People starve in slums and refugee camps. Treatable diseases are overlooked and untreated more than ever as our hospitals fill with pandemic victims. Global mental health is in crisis. Dictatorial governments have seized even more power. Marginalized people who already lived on the edge struggle for plain survival. Our world IS on fire.

A theme from the first chapter of Joel rings true for us too: large-scale disaster overlooks nothing and no one. The land in Joel’s day was ravaged by drought, famine, and locusts. But it wasn’t just the food that was affected—young and old, wealthy and poor, people and animals, land and water—all suffered. Even though our pandemic has been a global health disaster, it has hit our economies, governments, communities, and every other sphere of society, with crippling force. Every sector has taken a beating. All the destruction and brokenness has left our literal and metaphorical fields dried, shriveled, and unprotected: just waiting for fire to blaze through and pile calamity upon calamity. Catastrophe reminds us how little control we actually have.

But chapter 2.

The second chapter of Joel reminds us that the Lord is in complete control. Yes, he sends the locusts. Yes, he is holy and just and must punish sin. But he is also merciful and good.

The chapter opens with a nightmarish horror scene. Alarm bells ring and trumpets sound to announce an invading army, but the army is locusts. They black out the sun and moon and break over the mountaintops like a grisly dawn. The land that was lush like Eden before them is a barren desert waste behind them. They move and sound like an untamed wildfire crackling and leaping, like soldiers whose formation is not broken by obstacles, enemies, or defense walls. They pour over and through everything and the earth quakes beneath them.

These images depict the utter helplessness Joel’s people felt in the face of their plague. Nothing could stop the onslaught, and nothing was spared in its path. The locusts even crept into homes through windows, like thieves in the night, violating any sense of privacy or security the people felt. There was no refuge.

But then comes the great parenthesis of Joel. Between talks of plague, judgment, and devastation, the Lord gives an offering of mercy: “Even now, return to me with all your heart…,” “tear your heart and not your garments.” Why? Why should the people trust to the mercy of a God who has only measured out judgment? Because of the ancient name of God, the name he gave to Moses in the burning bush as he was sent to deliver God’s people from slavery.

Return to the Lord your God

for he is gracious and compassionate,

slow to anger and abounding in love,

and he relents from sending calamity.

Who knows? He may turn and have pity

And leave behind a blessing…

Joel tells us that this wrathful God shows grace and compassion. His anger is slow, but his love overflows. He can cancel calamity. And if you return to him, he may himself turn and deliver blessing instead of punishment. Joel tells the people to gather, young and old. No one is exempt. Help along the tottering elders. Bring in the nursing babies. Interrupt the honeymooners. Weep openly as a people. Repent of your sin and pray for the Lord to spare his people, not to prevent their shame, but the Lord’s. Beg him to relent so that the world will know the Lord’s character and his unchanging love for his people.

Then, Joel says, the Lord will reply with abundance. Food will once again be plentiful in the land. The people and the whole land and its animals can rejoice. The rain returns. The storehouses and places of harvest are full.

Unlike Joel’s people, we are not under the Old Testament covenant promises. Our plague is not necessarily covenant punishment. But the book’s prophecy is filled with God’s truths nonetheless. We too have faced nightmarish scenarios as Coronavirus has overtaken the land. We feel helpless and desperate. We don’t know how to halt it, or how to stop up the holes in our defenses. Our homes don’t even feel safe after we were locked inside them and our privacy and security there feels violated.

Our situation is not the same, but the Lord’s character IS. He is still gracious and compassionate. He is still merciful. Our lives, too, have been interrupted and changed. But just like Joel promised, ‘normal’ can return and we can live in abundance. Disaster has made us desperate, and in our desperation we have new reason to turn to the Lord.

It is here in narrative that the Lord says something startling: “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” What does he mean? How can you repay devastation, lost life, trauma? He quickly answers with a beautiful passage that gives me chills. Peter quotes it at Pentecost.

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth… And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.

Wow. Will the Lord repay in material abundance after a calamity? Perhaps. But he promises an even greater repayment for the trauma we have endured. If we repent, if we use this calamitous interruption to dig into our own hearts and submit them to the Lord, he will repay us with his Spirit.

The years the locusts have eaten—the difficult days we have experienced—will be repaid. Many of us have found a deeper relationship with God during this time of confusion and tragedy. Our life is enriched for the time we have spent with the Lord. We can use the interruption and the unquestionable grief and fear to drive us deeper into our need for Him and his constantly present Spirit with us.

Not only that, but this is a time of new pioneering for our churches. As they have closed and services have moved online or into homes, we have sifted our ‘religious practices.’ What church traditions are actually life-giving to us? Which ones prop up unnecessary cultural habits we can do without and still have abundant life with the Spirit of God? We have seen and felt the Spirit moving amongst God’s people as we have worshipped at home or with our own instruments together with our families and small communities. This is a time of refreshing and renewal—a time of God pouring out his Spirit abundantly on his people who seek him and repent of the hidden sins these times have forced us to face.

Yes, the Lord sent the locust plague to Joel’s people, and yes, he sent the Covid plague to us. The third chapter promises judgment on the Lord’s enemies just as the first two chapters promise it for his own people. He abhors the sins of selling people or trading them for goods. He is disgusted when defenseless people are abused and taken advantage of. The Lord prepares for war on his enemies and will scythe down even the most powerful among them like grass in a field. Where wickedness is ripe, the Lord is ready to cut it down.

But that does not mean he is not merciful. God is just and cannot abide sin, but he delights to show grace. When he does, the world stage will know of his unconditional, redeeming love to people who rely on him to save them. Unlike with the locust plague, God promises this time during judgment that he will dwell with his people and be their place of refuge. He is sovereign over the disasters of the world. But he is also sovereign over their outcomes. The Lord delivers us. He fills us with his Spirit. He gives us life abundant after calamity. He offers hope. He repays the years the locusts have eaten.

Root of Bitterness

One day I want to experience a baobab tree. It’s on my bucket list. I want to stare at it in wonder, touch it, and probably hug it. I’ll get lost imagining what ages of the earth it’s lived through, and what movements of mankind it has seen. Yep. Call me a tree-hugger.

The book, “The Little Prince” nurtured my fascination with baobab trees. This short, remarkably deep children’s book is about a boy who lives on his own, tiny planet. Every morning the boy washes and dresses, then tends to his planet. He determines the sprouting roses from the baobab shoots and uproots the dangerous trees. The little prince explains:

A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces.

That same image of crushing, constricting roots comes to mind when I read in Hebrews 12 about a bitter root that can grow up among the people of God to bring trouble and defilement.

Hebrews 10 gears up with a discussion on perseverance in the face of suffering. It outlines how, because of Christ’s sacrifice and redeeming work on our behalf, we can endure suffering with the body of believers at our side. Together we can stand our ground because we share a faith in the unshakeable Faithful One.

Chapter 11 follows with an incredible tapestry of stories to demonstrate this kind of faith. Believer after believer was considered faithful because they were sure of what they hoped for and certain of things not yet seen. The author says that this kind of faith is necessary to please God. Faith is what draws us to him because it means we believe two things: “that [God] exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” In shorter words, faith is the belief that God exists and that he is good.

These stories demonstrate that faith is strongest when it endures uncertainty and lack of evidence that God does exist or that he is working good when we can’t see it. According to this chapter, faith is being certain of what we do not see (that God exists), and sure of what we hope for (that God is good). The Bible characters in this chapter show with their lives that faith means knowing God’s good plan is often bigger than you can see or understand, but believing it anyway. 

Chapter 12 shifts from describing the faith of believers who went through suffering to a discussion on how the Lord disciplines us through that suffering. “Endure hardship as discipline,” the author says, because “God is treating you as sons.” We are told this discipline will be painful, but that it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.

The discipline of a loving parent takes a moment of disobedience, hardship, or suffering, and turns it for their child’s good. True discipline is the gift of a teaching moment, used to build good character out of bad circumstances. God does the same for us because he delights to call us his sons and daughters. Because of this, we can understand any suffering that we endure in faith as discipline for our good.

If we keep in mind the truths that God exists and he is good, that his plan is perfect but bigger than our ability to understand, we weather suffering well. This is what the author means when he or she writes, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” If we miss God’s grace—if faith does not guide us to see our suffering as loving discipline—we grow a root of bitterness instead of the harvest of righteousness the chapter promises.

This shortsightedness springs from a lack of faith in God’s good plans, and it grows in us a crushing root of bitterness that slowly tears us and our fellow believers apart. But as the author has already explained, faith is the perfect antidote for this poisonous root of bitterness. The chapter goes on to hold up Esau as an example of bitterness, because he gave into his appetites and gave away his inheritance for a single bowl of food.

When we focus on our appetites and desires, instant gratification becomes our goal. Like Esau, we want to alleviate temporary suffering with something the world has to offer. If we focus on the heaviness of our suffering instead of the grace God gives to discipline us through it to a better end, we give up our inheritance like Esau. We no longer receive discipline as a son because we have cast aside faith in God’s far-sighted plan in favor of short-lived satisfaction. This vain effort to avoid the suffering God has given us will always leave us unsatisfied. And so grows the root of bitterness in place of what could have been a harvest of righteousness and peace.

In the story of Ruth, we meet a woman who defines herself by her bitterness. After fleeing her country because of a famine, Naomi lives as a refugee in Moab. While there, her sons marry local women, but Naomi can’t catch a break. Before long she has watched not just her husband, but both of her sons die.

Her life is emptiness. She left her homeland when it was empty of food. She was soon emptied of her family members one by one. She decides to try her luck by returning home and tells her daughters-in-law to remain in their land and let her go on alone. When they protest, she tells them her womb is empty because her bed is empty and she could never give them another husband. One daughter-in-law, Ruth, stubbornly remains with Naomi. But when the two reach Naomi’s home, she tells the eager neighbors not to call her by her old name.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them, “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

Naomi sees the brokenness and emptiness in her life and blames it on the Lord. She chooses a new name that means ‘bitter’ and gives witness to the whole town that she blames the Lord for her suffering.

But now listen to the story told another way.

The Lord had a sovereign plan for Naomi and her family line. Instead of letting them starve and die in a season of scarcity, the Lord prompts them to leave for greener pastures. While in this foreign land, the Lord grows Naomi’s family with two daughters-in-law, one of whom is very devoted and compassionate. Through continued adversity, Naomi and Ruth’s bond grows so much that when given the opportunity, Ruth decides to leave the only land, people, language, and religion she has ever known to throw in her lot with Naomi.

God prepared a relative to marry Ruth, continue the family line, and care for Naomi as she ages. Even as Naomi proclaims her bitterness at the Lord’s treatment of her, the land around her was ripening for harvest: “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.”

God showed grace and filled Naomi’s life even as she chose to focus on the emptiness. He filled her home with food and her heart with hope, even as greater fulfillment awaited her. By the end of the story, the Lord has filled Ruth and Naomi’s home with a man, Ruth’s womb with a son, and then Naomi’s lap with a grandchild.

The same bitter root Hebrews mentions grew in Naomi’s heart. Her name means ‘pleasant,’ but she was anything besides pleasant to be around as bitterness took root in her heart. By the end of the story, she has learned faith. She learned to trust the Lord’s goodness in her life so she can set aside her bitterness and have faith in a greater plan she cannot see. Uprooting her bitterness was less about a change in situation (her husband and sons were still dead, and no happy ending for Ruth could change that), and more about a change in perspective. By the end of the story she chose to focus on the Lord’s goodness rather than her misfortune, and it relieved her of her bitterness. She did not miss God’s grace in her suffering.

Yet another Old Testament story illustrates this point. In a stark contrast to his brother Esau—the example of the bitterness Hebrews warns against—Jacob dealt with adverse situations quite differently. In Genesis 32 he found himself preparing for a confrontation with a vengeful brother, and afraid for his life. He sent a caravan of all his worldly possessions and family members on ahead and decided to spend the night alone. But the Lord came to him and they wrestled all night. On top of his emotional anguish, he was in physical pain from a dislocated hip, and exhausted from grappling with an opponent too powerful for him.

Jacob doesn’t give up or complain. He doesn’t focus on his own appetites or desires like hungry Esau did when face with lentil stew. If Jacob had chosen to focus on his own suffering, he would have just given up, especially when the man asked for an end to the tussle at daybreak. Instead, Jacob refuses to let go until the Lord blesses him.

Jacob knew so little about God at this point in his life, but he learned experientially about the Lord’s power, goodness, and grace from this encounter. He refused to give up the conflict until he had been blessed, and so instead of choosing to respond to suffering with bitterness, he responds with endurance until he achieves the goal. The Lord blesses him and gives him a new name, “Israel,” which means ‘struggles with God,’

Like Jacob, like Naomi, like Esau, our lives are all kinds of messy right now. We struggle with depression, with lockdown, with fears or anxieties about Covid-19. Our lives have been disrupted. We’ve been locked inside. We’ve faced separation from friends and family and our church body. Maybe we’ve lost jobs or just moved or our lives have changed so much because of the pandemic we don’t know which way is up or even what ‘normal’ we could return to anymore.

On top of that, we grieve and protest injustice in the States. We face disillusionment and feelings of defeat as we fight an uphill battle against broken systems. We’re heartbroken to face the realities that these broken systems created by sinful humans exist not just in our government but in our communities and churches and workplaces, no matter where we live in the world. We are exhausted. Our bodies feel the physical toll of stress. We struggle to find hope, and maybe faith in the unseen is that much more difficult as we feel surrounded and soaked in suffering.

In the face of these afflictions we have two options.

Like Esau, we can choose to live by our appetites, miss the grace of God, and try to satiate our hunger or pain with a quick fix without thought to the future. But if we seek to satisfy our needs with anything less than eternal, we will always hunger and thirst again. If we choose like Esau to focus exclusively on our immediate suffering, we can only increase our frustration as temporal solutions fail again and again and again. As we watch the world and its offerings fail to satisfy us, we can only become bitter. The root grows in us and constricts our soul, crushes our spirit, and breaks our heart.

Or, like Jacob, we can persevere. The struggle and suffering we experience now has the reward of blessing on the other end, if we persevere. The blessing is becoming the new man Paul talks about in Colossians, with a new name John promises in Revelation. If we choose endurance and faith over bitterness, like Jacob, we can know the face of God more clearly for having grappled in his presence, and we are changed. The difficulties we’ve experienced and will continue to experience are not only uncomfortable and painful. There are very real rewards on the other side of the suffering. Like Jacob, we can ask the Lord for blessing to come out of our struggle, and He has already demonstrated that he can and will honor such requests. God gives the blessing freely, but the price we must pay is endurance. We must endure even with all the fear, pain, suffering, exhaustion, and ignorance of God the struggle reveals in us.

Naomi’s story shows us there is still hope if we have already given in to bitterness. If we realign our perspective and choose to focus on the Lord’s goodness instead of our emptiness, he will fill us with his presence, the greatest gift of all.

Let us with the saints choose faith in the Lord’s goodness over short-sighted bitterness. Our confidence will be rewarded and when we have persevered, we will receive the promise. By God’s grace and our certainty in his faithfulness, we will not be those who shrink back and are destroyed, but those who believe and are saved.