Not until your 40th birthday do you start getting cards from well-wishers about being over the hill, and as much as you enjoy moving forward in life experience, the inconveniences and pains of getting old arrive like an unwelcome computer virus. It’s a push-and-pull tension of pain and pleasure.
Perform a Bible search for the number 40 and you’ll discover a number of events that reflect such tension. These episodes of 40 reveal (see a list below under “Further Study”) God putting pain to work for a positive outcome: saving people or drawing them closer to him.
What are you doing during these 40 days that we call Lent?
The natural drive in both humans and animals to escape pain is so strong that sometimes we’re unaware we are harming ourselves even more by our method of escape. Like in a dream you’re running away from a bad guy and you fall off the edge of a cliff.
More realistically, it’s masking our stresses and fears with unhealthy behaviors. The urge for painlessness is only helpful if it works a positive outcome. That’s why the Bible contrasts the good of godly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:10 and says, “Worldly sorrow works death.”
Worldly sorrow here is a pain that one feels as a result of sin, shame, and guilt—a pain so sharp that a person might do anything in the world to escape it, but in choosing a worldly method harms oneself even more with spiritual death: separation from God and all spiritual blessings now and forever.
That’s running away from guilt and falling off the edge into the absolute worst pain of all – a soul as good as dead. No God to help me, no God to hear my prayers, no God to protect me from the devil’s deceitfulness or resurrect me from the grip of the grave, no God to intervene for me in the lives of those I commit to his care, no God to hold open the doors of heaven for me when I die.
I remember as a child picturing a crippled beggar who hears the words of Jesus to stand up and walk, and he tosses his crutches aside before he even tries to stand up. Today toss aside the crutches of painless repentance. “It’s me, God. It’s my sin, my fault, and my pain. Please, take it from me your way. I trust you. Have mercy on me.”
“Godly sorrow works repentance that leads to salvation.” God’s announcement in the Garden of Eden, now that sin had entered the world, that Adam would painfully sweat providing for his family and Eve would painfully scream giving birth to her babies (Genesis 3). That’s distress to drive people back to God. The fiery snakes that bit the Israelites and your burning conscience searing with sorrow. That’s distress to drive the Israelites and you back to God.
Godly sorrow puts pain to work. Leave your crutches today. Trust in God’s mercy. Go and sin no more.
PRAYER: Have mercy on me, O God. See through my cover-ups. Find me when I try to escape the pain of my sin, and reach out to me as my Savior from sin. Accept my repentance today that trusts in your forgiving promises, and strengthen my soul that I may not sin against you. Amen.
FURTHER MEDITATION: Here are some 40-day episodes in the Bible that repeat the theme of God using sorrow to draw us away from our frail and finite selves into his faithful and infinite salvation. Even focusing his own Son on the essentials.
- When God sent the flood it rained for 40 days and nights, both as a watery grave for the wicked world and also as deliverance the ark and its passengers: Noah and his family.
- When Moses met with God on Mount Sinai for 40 days the smoky clouds, peals of thunder, and flashes of divine glory struck fear in the hearts of the Israelites, who backed away from the mountain, while God presented his covenant that would bring the Israelites closer to him than any other nation.
- Those same Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years; like children being disciplined, they expressed both anger at the God who was making their life miserable and appreciation to God who never stopped showing them mercy.
- God sent Jonah to warn the people of a great city, “40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). The shock of that announcement caused even the stubborn king of Nineveh to repent, declare a fast and announce, “Let everyone call urgently on God” (3:8).
- Jesus battled Satan during 40 days of solitude in the wilderness without food, painfully craving help from God for his body and soul; he found it and defeated Satan and temptation for us forever.
- After his resurrection Jesus taught his disciples during 40 days of emotional turmoil, troubled that he’d be leaving them in body when he’d ascend to heaven, yet triumphing that God the Holy Spirit would come and lead them to a new level of understanding and witnessing.