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Tough Times, Part 2
Finding Perspective in the Face of Suffering
Bruce A. Hess
If you would, please take out the word of God and turn in it to the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, and chapter number four. Daniel, chapter number four.
Last time we launched a series that we’ve entitled Tough Times, Finding Perspective in the Face of Suffering. We are talking about how—in your life and my life–come times of adversity and times of difficulty and times of distress and times of trouble. There are multiple words used in the New Testament to describe these kinds of things, but one of the more picturesque words in the New Testament is a word that is ‘thlipsis’.
Now that looks like that is hard to pronounce, but you have in English, a ‘th’ then the word, lip, l-i-p, then you have s-i-s. So, it is pronounced thlipsis, it is a very picturesque term. It is a term that Paul uses in 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, verse 17, when he starts talking about afflictions that he has faced. The word is picturesque because it carries the idea of events in our life pressing in on us, squeezing us, crushing us, if you would, as if we are having the circumstances crush us. This word is used forty-five times in the New Testament. It is translated, sometimes, by affliction. Sometimes it is translated – tribulation. Sometimes it is translated – distress. Or, it is translated – trouble.
But isn’t that what tough times and suffering feel like, right? We feel like, when we are in the middle of this stuff, that we are being squeezed. That life is just pressing in on us, sort of ‘backing us into a corner’ [an idiom meaning to force into a difficult or unpleasant situation that isn’t easy to resolve], where we can often feel crushed by the circumstances.
Now Tough Times, here is the way they tend to show up: they tend to knock unexpectedly in our life and then just sort of barge their way into our life. If you are here this morning and you are in the middle of a tough time, you are being pressed in on, I simply would say: hey, journey with us through this series and see if God’s perspective doesn’t help some. If you’re not in the middle of a tough time right now, I would encourage you to look around, because someone around you IS in the middle of a tough time. Perhaps God would use you to be a comfort to them, to be a help to them, to be an encouragement to them.
But also, I would say, if you’re not in the middle of a tough time right now, I will say this with some confidence: Mr. Tough Time will be visiting you soon. So, it is worthy of our attention this morning to go through all this information that we want to cover today.
When we feel besieged, when we feel overwhelmed and overburdened, we often feel like we are in quicksand and we are sinking quickly. What we really need is a rock upon which we can stand and Scripture points to that rock and we are going to look at that more this morning.
One of the things we are doing in this series is, we are looking at seven pivotal points of perspective that we need to have as we face tough times. As we began last week, we looked at the first two of those pivotal points of perspective. The first one is, Always remember we live in a broken world. This is not the way God designed things to be. Sin and death have broken our world.
The second one we looked at about how we must Expectantly look ahead to God’s promise of full deliverance. There is a time coming when we are not going to be here anymore. We are going to be in a new paradise that God has been preparing and creating.
We want to look at perspectives three and four in the message today. Number three is that we must Constantly rest in God’s sovereignty. Tough Times are always difficult. Tough Times feel hard and harsh to us. Maybe the tough time that we have to go through is the loss of a loved one, maybe it is a health crisis, maybe it is a financial crisis, maybe it is a relational crisis, maybe it is some mistreatment that has come our way, maybe it is the rebellion of a child, maybe we have been on the receiving end of injustice…it is just not fair what has happened. Maybe, even as part of our tough time, we have become a victim of violence.
Here is what is interesting about Tough Times, they often appear to us to be rather random. I don’t know about you, but when some of these things happen to me, I’m tempted to say out loud, Is anyone in charge here? I mean, man, look at what is happening to me. The answer to that question is, yes. The sovereign King is in charge.
We are going to be looking at a classic passage in this regard from Daniel, chapter 4, verses 29-35. If you have your Bibles open there, I just want to simply point out what we can learn here. What we have in this section is the kingdom of Babylon and the king of Babylon is Nebuchadnezzar. In verse 29, he was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, which had the best view in all of the city. He is walking on that roof and in verse 30, the king began to reflect, which you often do when you are looking at a very beautiful view. Then, he says to himself—and in this verse the key to understanding the verse is to look at the pronouns—the king reflected and said, “Is this not Babylon the Great?” Which is the way it was known. “Which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of mymajesty?”
Now, it is important to understand—because we’ve just been sort of helicopter dropped right in this story—Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful person on the face of the planet at the time. He was the wealthiest person. He was the most accomplished person on the earth in this era. Humanly he had a lot to be prideful and boastful about, for the city of Babylon that he had built was truly amazing. It was a city that was encircled, seventeen miles around, by a double wall. The inner wall of that city was twenty-one feet thick. That is like a two-lane road, how thick the inner wall was. Not only that, but the walls around the city were also quite tall, four to five stories tall. There were thirty-six towers that were built in this wall going around seventeen miles. There were eight magnificent gates. One, the Ishtar gate, was decorated with five hundred and fifty-seven animals, all made out of colored tile.
The city of Babylon, the Euphrates River ran right through the middle of town, which became a problem for them later on when the Medes and the Persians came after them. There were fifty pagan temples inside the city of Babylon. And one of the most amazing things was one of the Seven Wonders of the World was there, which was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. What Nebuchadnezzar had done is he had built these hanging gardens because his wife, Amytis, just loved her home turf, she loved the green mountains of Media, where she was from. You didn’t have any of that in Babylon, so he built these elevated gardens. They were elevated high enough that you could still see them from outside of the walls. He built this elaborate watering system to feed all of those gardens.
Outside of the city of Babylon he erected the temple to the god, Marduk. It was a seven stories tall pyramid, built from sixty million bricks, topped with a solid gold statue which weighed 52,000 pounds, or some twenty-six tons. Now, that’s a lot of gold, right? His own personal palace had been given the nickname, “the marvel of mankind.” Another name it was given was “the abode of majesty.”
So, we see what he is doing here. He is making all these statements: me, me, I, I did this, it’s all for my glory. Notice verse 31, “While the word was still in the king’s mouth, (before he ever got it all out, everything he wanted to say about patting himself on the back) a voice came from heaven, saying, “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you and you will be driven away from mankind and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field.” In other words, he is going to have a mental illness come upon himself. “You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time (seven years) will pass until you recognize that the Most High God is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.”
Verse 33, “Immediately the word concerning (I mean, there was no delay) Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.” What an amazing statement. What an amazing event. Nebuchadnezzar needed to learn that God was the one who was large and in charge.
Notice at the end, verse 34, at the end of that period of seven years, Nebuchadnezzar says, “I raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason came back to me, and I bless the Most High God and praised and honored Him who lives forever; for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of earth (including me) are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven among all the angelic realms and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?” He learned the lesson that the most High God is the one who is large and in charge.
We see this whole idea of the sovereignty of God discussed in Isaiah, chapter 46, verses 9 and 11. This is God speaking here and He says, “I am God and there is no other. I am God and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning…saying, ‘My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish My purpose…I have spoken and I will bring it to pass. I have purposed and I will do it.”
The sovereignty of God is clearly taught in the Old Testament. We could spend several weeks talking about this, but we also see it taught very clearly in the New Testament in Colossians, chapter 1 and verse 17. Paul writes, regarding Jesus as the Son of the Most High, he says, “He is before all things.” What does that mean? Well, in verse 16 “all things” include thrones and dominions and authorities in the heavens and on earth. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
So, if we ask the question, is anyone in charge here? God says, ‘I am. I am in charge, I am sovereign.’ We see this idea of God’s sovereignty and how we must constantly rest in God’s sovereignty, pointed out for us in the book of Job. You might take your Bibles and turn with me to Job, chapter 1. Job is parked right in front of the book of Psalms, which is right in the middle of your Bible. It is relatively easy to find it. Now, when we come to the book of Job, we are going to be looking at events that are the oldest in the Bible, second only to the book of Genesis. We learn from Job 42:16—there is a whole series of events that are going to happen to Job in the book of Job—but we learn at the end of the book that he lived 140 years more, after all these events happened to him. If you remember, after the flood, the age of people’s lives began to slowly go down, down, down. So, if he lived 140 years after all the events happened, he was probably someone who lived just before Abraham lived, because Abraham lived 175 years.
One of the themes of the book of Job is the sovereignty of God. So, if you look at chapter 1, verse 1, it says, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.” It doesn’t mean he was perfect; he was born in sin like everyone else, but he was someone who was seeking to follow and to honor God with his life.
Go over to verse 6 of chapter 1. It says, “There was a particular day when the sons of God (which is one of the terms for the angelic realm) came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came.” He still had access to the inner working of things.
Drop down to verse 8, “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.’”
Verse 9, “Then Satan answered the Lord, “Do you think Job fears You and honors You for no good reason?’”
Then, he says something very interesting in verse 10, which underscores the sovereignty of God, he says, “Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” I mean, God, You are in charge of everything, You’re just totally protecting this guy. You have a hedge all around him. “You’ve blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.”
Here was Satan’s suggestion, “Put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has.” You take away his possessions and “He will surely curse You to Your face. Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has (all his possessions) are in your power now, Satan, only don’t put your hand on him, personally.’ So, Satan departed from the presence of the Lord.”
Who do we see who is large and in charge here? It is God, Himself. In fact, later on when there is a lot of questioning—even from Job—about God, in chapters 40 and 41 God emphasizes, ‘I am the one who is in charge’, completely and fully in charge. In fact, here we even see that Satan had to ask permission to touch Job’s life in some way.
We learn something from this. One of the things we learn from this is that some tough times in our life come directly from Satan. We see that right here. We also see it in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, in verse 7, where Paul says that he had received a thorn in the flesh. You remember what it goes on to say? He describes it as a messenger from Satan. He said, I’ve got a tough time going on in my life and it is a messenger from Satan. So, some tough times come directly from Satan.
We also learn from Scripture that some tough times come as a result of our own failures and our own disobedience and the classic example of that is the person of Jonah. We all know the story of Jonah. God said, ‘I want you to go here and I want you to do this,’ and Jonah said, ‘No way. In fact, I’m not only not going there, I’m going the exact opposite direction.’ And, due to his disobedience, God assigned him to a three-day weekend in the belly of a great fish.
Some of our tough times come as a result of our own failings and our disobedience. Some of our tough times are part of God’s faith development plan. We see that in Mark, chapter 4, verses 36-40. It is the familiar story of how Jesus and the disciples get into the boat. They are going to cross the Sea of Galilee, a very, very deep sea. You remember the story; this incredible fierce storm comes. Now, these are seasoned fishermen, they’ve been through many regular storms. This wasn’t a regular storm; this was a fierce storm. They began to fear for their lives, they think they are going to go down, they are going to be drowned. Jesus is asleep, remember this? The disciples awaken him and they say, ‘What is your problem, Jesus? Don’t you care that we are perishing? We are going down in the storm!”
Remember what Jesus does? He instantly stills the whole thing. I mean…like glass. It scares the disciples, who is this guy? The answer is, God. Jesus says to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Why are you afraid of the storm? Have you no faith? Have you no trust in Me?’ This was part of God’s faith development plan for their lives.
We must constantly rest in God’s sovereignty. What does that really mean? It means that we can never be in a situation or in a location that is not fully governed by the Lord Jesus. It means that God is always working His divine plan.
It is very easy for us to make the statement: God is always working His divine plan. The reason why it doesn’t seem clearly phenomenal to us is because we’re just self-focused. I mean, we can rather easily talk about how He is always working His divine plan in my life. But think about it for a moment. He is always working His divine plan. He always has a a divine plan for all those who know Him personally, but He also has a divine plan for everyone who doesn’t know Him personally…because He is seeking to make them aware of their need for the living God.
So, think about it. He is always working His divine plan and there are billions of people. That means even during the time of this service, the sixty minutes in this service, there are billions of goals and plans that God is managing at any given time, billions of them. It is amazing. But He is able to do that because He is the sovereign God.
Some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, you know, you start talking this way, Bruce, about God’s sovereignty, and it sounds a lot like “fate.” You’re just telling me that fate is happening.’
No, no, no, no, not at all. Fate…what does fate mean? Fate means that things just happen randomly. You’ve got no clue why they are happening, no one is in charge of anything, it just happens. But sovereignty means this: all things are governed within God’s providential plan.
One of my favorite passage is in Psalm 11, verses 3 and 4, the psalmist writes these words, “When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Do you ever feel that way in your life? When Tough Times and adversity comes, you feel like the very foundations of your life are being destroyed. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” What does the next verse say? “The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord is on His heavenly throne.” When we feel like the very foundations of our life are being destroyed by these Tough Times that come, we need to remember He’s on His throne; to constantly rest in God’s sovereignty. Why? Because it gives us a sense of security. It gives us a sense of purpose in the midst of Tough Times.
Here is what we are emphasizing: God is always sovereign. God is always governing, even when Tough Times come in our life. You might be thinking, that’s good to know that someone is managing all this, someone is governing all this but, does He care?? Let’s not pretend we don’t think that question, because we do. If we are honest, we are often thinking, if He cared He would never let this happen to me. If He cared He would never let me face cancer two times. If He cared.
Which leads us to the next pivotal point of perspective that we need to have and that is we must regularly revel in His consistent character and His great love. What does Scripture teach us about God? Well, that could be a six-month study, but we want to look at a few things. One of the things Scripture teaches us is that the Lord is good, Psalm 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; how blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him!”
The Bible teaches us that the Lord is good, The Bible teaches us that the Lord is just. Psalm 37:28, “The Lord loves justice.” He is never unjust, He is never capricious, He is never unfair, He is never malicious.
Scripture teaches us that the Lord is loving. One of my favorite passages is from Psalm 136. It is a great psalm. The psalmist says there, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. (Why?) For His steadfast love endures forever. (Verse 3) Give thanks to the Lord of lords (who is sovereign), His steadfast love endures forever and ever.” That little refrain, His steadfast love endures forever, is a refrain that is repeated in all twenty-six verses of Psalm 136.
When you come to verse 23, “It is He who remembered our low estate (He who had remembered that we are fallen, that we were helpless, that we were without hope and He came to this planet to win us back) for His steadfast love endures forever.” Verse 26, “Give thanks to the God of heaven. His steadfast love endures forever.”
When Tough Times invade our life, when we feel like we are being pressed in—this is not an automatic response that we have, to regularly revel in His consistent character and great love. Why isn’t it? Why is this not an automatic response? Because, Tough Times are…tough!! That is why they are called tough times. So, we must, because it’s not automatic, remember to regularly revel in His consistent character and great love.
See, God knows, men and women, that we are human. He knows that we are dust. He knows that we struggle. God knows that Tough Times and suffering and adversity and affliction–He knows that they affect our heart. He knows that they touch our soul. He knows that it penetrates us soul deep. Let me say that again. God knows that Tough Times affect our heart. He knows that they touch our soul and they will penetrate us soul deep. But when we lock our eyes on the cancer; when we lock our eyes on the disability; when we lock our eyes on the divorce; when we lock our eyes on the loss of the job or the conflict or the mistreatment or the death of a loved one; we tend to lose sight of this…His consistent character and His great love.
You know, Scripture is very, very realistic and I really appreciate that. It records a number of the struggles that believers have. For example, in the book of Psalms are lament psalms, where they are lamenting what is happening in their life. One of the psalms I really like is Psalm 13. See if you identify with any of these feelings when you are in a Tough Time…if you are in one now, or think of the most recent one you went through. The psalmist writes,
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Are you forgetting me? I’m in pain over here!)
“How long will You hide Your face from me?” (How long must I wrestle with my thoughts? You’ve been there in the midst of adversity and while there you are wrestling with all these thoughts.)
“How long, must I, every day, have sorrow in my heart?” (Ever felt that way?)
Aren’t you glad that kind of stuff is in Scripture? I’m not a weirdo. I struggle with that and the psalmist says, I’m struggling with those things. I want you to notice what he goes on to say in verses 5 and 6. He says, yeah, I feel all that, it’s very real to me, “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love, my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.” That is what I really want to remember. “I will sing to the Lord (Why?) because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
We may not know exactly what He is doing, we may not know why He is allowing what He is allowing, but one thing we can know for certain: we are not an expendable pawn in a celestial chess match. One thing we know is that He loves us. You see this also very clearly taught in the New Testament. We looked at this verse, Romans 5:8, last time, where it says, “God demonstrates His love toward us.” That verb “demonstrates” means to publicly display. It means to provide evidence of. God publicly displays His love towards us. He provides evidence of His love towards us. What is the evidence? Well, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
We always want to ask the why question. Why have You allowed this tough time in my life, Lord? Why have You allowed this suffering? We may never understand in this life, but we know what the answer isn’t. It isn’t that He doesn’t love me. You see, He has already proved Himself, He demonstrated it, publicly displayed it, gave evidence of it, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He proved it by coming to the planet and dying in my place so that He could adopt me as His prized child.
Another classic passage on this is found in the book of Romans in chapter 8, a great chapter on the love of God. You might want to turn there with me. We are going to look in Romans, chapter 8, verses 35, then 37-39. A great passage, you ought to go there often. Verse 35, Paul asks the question, “Who is going to separate us from the love of Christ?” Will tribulation do it, distress, persecution? Is that going to separate me? Famine, is that going to separate me from the love of Christ? Or nakedness, the idea there is, I’m bankrupt, I’ve got nothing. Or some kind of tough time that is a peril that comes into my life and maybe threatens my life? Or sword? Violence that might come in my life. What of those things are ever going to separate me from the love of Christ?
Notice in verse 37, “In all these thing,” what things? The tribulation, the distress, the persecution, the famine, the brokenness, the peril, the violence. “In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” He goes on to say in verse 38, for I am convinced that death can’t do it, nor life can do it–anything that we face in life. Nor any kind of angelic being or principalities (, that is all those angelic beings), can ever separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing in the present can ever do it. Nor things to come in the future could ever do it, nor any kind of earthly powers ever separate me from the love of Christ. He goes on…he is just trying to reach for terms> He says, nothing up high, nothing down low, nor any other created thing ( and that includes everything, because outside of God everything is created). Verse 39, “Will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What is he saying? He is saying this: His loving face is always facing you, even in the toughest of times. What does that really mean for me? Well—it means for you too—don’t crucify yourself when you experience times of doubt, when the Tough Times come in your life. God is not surprised that we struggle. God is not surprised that difficult times are difficult for us. God is not disgusted with our humanness. See, doubt arises because there is a gap between our understanding and God’s sovereign and loving ways. Doubt arises because He has ways and His ways are not our ways. Doubt arises because God knows what is good, but it doesn’t look good to me. Doubt arises because He takes us places we would never choose to go. Who would ever say: ‘You know, I cannot wait until I get the phone call that I have cancer, I’m so excited. He takes us places we would never choose to go!
Have you noticed this? That when a tough time is going to arrive that you do not get a text from God. “Bruce, just so you know, tomorrow a tough time is coming,” I just wanted you to be alert to that. We don’t get texts like that. The reality is, He does not invite us into the counsel of His will, but He loves us. His loving face is always facing you and me. That is why, men and women, we are called to walk by faith, to live by faith, to trust Him.
Joseph Stowell helps us in this regard. He says this, “Faith means grabbing hold of His character and believing that He is good, all powerful, caring, believing that He is forgiving, tender, and just. True faith refuses to let go of those realities. Faith means taking God’s promises, claiming them (and I like this part) and clinging to them. It is grasping His word and applying it (this is good) to our pain. Although faith does not always give us answers, it does always keep us steady and secure.”
Here is the thing we need to remember. Satan likes to whisper and he likes to whisper things like this to us—when we are in the middle of these Tough Times and it is all pressing in on us. He likes to whisper things like this: God failed you, you should have never followed Him in the first place. What did it get you? He likes to whisper things like, your Heavenly Father has forsaken you, turned His back on you. I mean after all, you’ve been crying out to Him for months! Satan likes to whisper; God doesn’t keep His promises. If He did, you wouldn’t be in this situation.
You know, we must recognize the vocabulary of the enemy. He likes to whisper these things to us. Why? Because if we begin to question God’s character, if we begin to question God’s goodness, if we begin to question God’s faithfulness, if we begin to question His love, we will quit seeking His help and we will quit seeking His face. We must remember His loving face is always facing you and me.
Our friend, Paul David Tripp…again more good words from him…he says this, “How our life fits into the whole of His grand redemptive plan will never be completely clear in this life. This is why real rest and peace are not found in knowing and understanding. It is only found in trust. Only when you have a quiet confidence in the Lord behind the plan and have come to know His love, wisdom, power and grace, will we be able to rest in hope—even when we do not understand what God is doing in a particular moment in your life.” We often do not know the why.
You say, wait a minute, Bruce, I thought I heard you say something the first time in the series that God does reveal some of His answers to why, why He allows Tough Times. The answer to that is, Yeah, He does reveal some of the whys. That is going to be part three in our series.
As we close today, I simply want to close with Isaiah 43:1. Remember we are either in the middle of a tough time or Mr. Tough Time is going to come visit us soon. Here is what we want to remember, this is what it says in Isaiah 43:1, “Do not fear, you are Mine!” says God. This is God’s counsel for us, Do not fear for you are Mine!!
Let’s pray together. Father, we thank again You for the word. We have need of this, we are human, we are frail. You are SO much beyond us. We often have confusion. May we seriously remember how critical it is to remember the fact that You are large and in charge, that You are sovereign, that You are governing, that You are managing things. Then Father, oh, so deeply important that we remember to revel in Your character and Your great love for us, to remember that Your loving face is always facing us. May we find encouragement from You as we go through Tough Times and we pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
Tough Times – Week two
1. Bruce mentioned one of the key New Testament words for Tough Times was the term
“thlipsis.” It is a rather rich word used 45 times picturing being pressed in on, squeezed
Think about a tough time (maybe now) when you felt pressed in on, squeezed, or
crushed by circumstances. Share some about why you felt (or feel) that way.
2. How was God’s sovereignty and providence displayed in Daniel 4:29-35 and in the story
3. Real out loud Isaiah 46:9-11. What comfort and security in Tough Times can we
experience when we pause to reflect on the fact that God is indeed “large and in charge?”
4. Bruce talked about how Scripture teaches that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), the Lord is
just (Psalm 37:28), and the Lord is loving (Psalm 136). What can we practically gain in the
midst of Tough Times by refreshing our hearts with that perspective?
5. Read Psalm 13:1-6. How do verses 1-2 contrast with verses 5-6? How do you think David
was able to make that transition?
6. We are either in a Tough Time now or will be soon. If you’re not in the midst right now,
think through those around you who may well be in the midst of a Tough Time. How
might God use you to help and encourage them?
7. God knows we are human. So, as Bruce said, don’t crucify yourself when you experience
times of doubt and struggle. We should do like the Psalmists did. Take your struggle and
frustration and discouragement to the Lord in prayer. Do that right now.
Remember: His loving face is always facing you!!