Joy and Pain
The little boy toddle-ran across the family room after spotting his favorite blankie in the corner. Just before he got there, though, he tripped and fell hard. Usually one to catch himself with his hands, this time the 16 month old caught his forehead on his Fisher-Price holiday train instead. With big tears streaming down his face, he jumped up into his mother’s arms and cried for a couple of minutes. Then, sporting his own version of holiday colors on his head, he side-stepped the train and went about his business.
The very thing that had been bringing him so much pleasure suddenly caused him pain.
Holidays can be like that, can’t they?! There is so much talk about celebration and joy and happiness. Yet the very things that bring us pleasure can also bring us pain. We gather with family to share meals and memories. But we miss those we love who aren’t with us:
- a loved one deployed with the military far from home;
- a child away at school or working far from home;
- a marriage fractured by separation and stress;
- an empty chair representing the absence of a loved one who died this past year.
Maybe this year was a year of fertility treatments that led to depleted savings rather than an expanding family.
Maybe this year was filled with work furloughs and pink slips and unemployment paperwork and job interview rejections and an ever diminishing sense of self.
Maybe this year was an unending stream of doctors appointments and tests and hazy diagnoses and ever diminishing energy and sense of hope for the future.
And so we hope time passes quickly and ushers us into a good new year. Because next year will be better. Because next year has to be better. Because next year can’t be as bad as this one was, right?!
For some reason, the holidays seem to magnify whatever emotions we’re dealing with, whether good or bad. That’s why we’re offering a Blue Christmas worship service this year. It’s a helpful way during the holidays to give space for the harder, darker emotions that may be associated with your Christmas.
Even the first Christmas season was filled with angelic choirs singing Hallelujah choruses and surprise gifts from out of town guests, and untimely, tragic deaths, and unexpected holiday travel adventures. We need to come and rejoice at Jesus’ birth. And we need to hear a word from the Lord on how that birth still touches our lives this year if our holidays didn’t resemble a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincaid painting.
Listen Carefully to Scripture
We start with what may seem the most obvious, but still the most helpful place to start: We need to listen carefully to Scripture.
Sometimes, in the throes of life’s challenges we listen to the wrong messages, whether from well-meaning others or from within ourselves. Messages like:
God helps those who help themselves.
I like that one; it even sounds Biblical. There’s only one problem: it’s not in the Bible. And it’s contrary to God’s actions in Scripture, because frequently, God helps those who cannot help themselves precisely because they are powerless.
Or, how about this message:
If I were a good Christian (or if I had enough faith), I wouldn’t be struggling right now.
This is a tricky message to refute, because I suspect few of us here today, including the preacher, would disagree with the idea that they could be a more devoted follower of Jesus or that they would like to have more faith. I dunno . . . maybe I’m wrong: Anybody here make a return to Target after receiving too much faith as a Christmas present last week?
No, I didn’t think so.
And yet, neither message is Scriptural. Nowhere in the Bible are the challenges we face in this life related to the quality or quantity of our faith.
Maybe you’ve heard this message:
God uses these challenges to make me a better person / a better Christian.
As if God sits up in heaven thinking,
Alright, let’s give the Schoonovers four years of infertility treatments and several miscarriages so they’ll be better parents and appreciate their children more when they do finally have kids.
Now THAT’S the kind of God I want to worship! NOT! It’s one thing to go through life’s challenges and, through self-reflection or the trusted guidance of a counselor or pastor, grow as a person and develop compassion or empathy or other life skills. It’s quite another thing to think that God sends mishap or disappointments or heartache in order to shape us or develop our character.
I don’t believe Scripture supports this sort of view of God.
Or maybe you’ve heard this message:
God is judging me for some sin in my life.
This was the question the disciples asked Jesus in John’s gospel when they met a man born blind:
As he went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9.1-2)
At least this idea – that the man was blind as a judgment for his sin – is Biblical. The fancy church word for this is “retribution” and it comes from Moses’ teaching to the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness after their release from slavery in Egypt:
God does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. (Ex 34:7)
It’s a teaching Job’s friends tried to use when they reassured Job that there was a reason for his losing all this possessions, and his family, and his health. You’ve brought this upon yourself, they said. There’s some unconfessed sin in your life. If you deal with that, then you’ll be fine and God will restore your fortunes. But it’s this idea of retribution that Jesus refuted when he responded to his disciples’ question:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (Jn 9.3)
God doesn’t need to judge us or punish us in this life. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus took on the punishment we should have received because of our sin. But because Jesus suffered it for us, the penalty has been paid. There’s nothing we can do. So God doesn’t punish us in this life because of our sin.
When we sin, we may certainly face the natural consequences of our behavior. My dad smoked a pack or more a day for nearly 50 years. It’s no surprise he developed lung cancer, high blood pressure, and died of a stroke. Eat an unhealthy diet for years as an adult, and we can expect to deal with high cholesterol and weight issues, and even diabetes and heart disease. Abuse alcohol or drugs, and it’s not a surprise that we may destroy our liver, contract hepatitis, or even HIV. God isn’t punishing us with cancer or obesity or other health issues. They’re simply the natural consequences of our behavior. And we ought not blame God for them. The reason for our predicament is staring at us in the mirror.
Listening to Healthy Biblical Messages
Rather than listen to what the Bible doesn’t say, we need to listen carefully to what Scripture really says:
Our Testing Is Common To Everyone
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. (10.13a)
Nothing we’re going through is unique or unusual. When we are in the middle of a challenging time, it can seem like no one else has experienced what we’re going through. But of course, that’s not true. There is nothing in this life that we deal with that someone else hasn’t dealt with it. Strength of being part of a small group Bible Study or a group like Stephen Ministry or GriefShare. There are others who have gone through what you’re going through, and God may use us to be the resource that helps you find a way to endure the struggles you’re facing.
God Provides A Way Out
But there’s another part to God’s encouraging word from 1 Corinthians:
God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (10.13b)
When we feel overwhelmed by the struggles and temptations, God will offer us a way out. We may feel stuck and overwhelmed and unable to go on any more. But through this community of faith God offers a way to endure and make it through the struggles. While it’s easy – and even tempting to isolate ourselves when we’re going through hard times, it’s those times that we may need the support of our church family all the more. We are not meant to be islands unto ourselves.
God “Disciplines” Us With Difficult Times
This brings us to a Biblical message from Proverbs:
My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. (3:11-12)
I’ll confess that as I pulled my notes together for this sermon I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this passage. Personally, I’m not real comfortable with the idea that God disciplines us. But the more I reflected on this Biblical message the more I realized I couldn’t skip it. And I realized that my reluctance had more to do with me than it did with God’s character or God’s love for us.
As I dug more deeply into this passage, I learned that the word “discipline” isn’t what I first expected. The image I had in mind was of a parent physically “disciplining” a child by spanking him or sending her to her room for a time out. The Hebrew word used here in Proverbs, though, has the fuller connotation of moral discipline, of teaching and instruction, than simply physical punishment. In fact, one could read the phrase this way,
My child, don’t reject the LORD’s instruction, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.
This brings to mind the role of the “Law” in our Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel. God is revealed to us as both Law – in teachings about how we are to behave – and Gospel – the understanding that God freely offers us forgiveness for our sins and a restored relationship with God. In this, then, I hear Proverbs encourage us not to reject God’s Law; not to forget or downplay that there are some things that for our sake and for the sake of the community we dare not do.
This is a far cry from saying God sends hard times into our lives to give us a kind of spiritual “time out” or a dose of “divine castor oil”so we might amend our ways or grow in faith.
Which brings us to another Biblical message:
Some Things Will Always Remain A Mystery
In the Old Testament, a fellah named Job had it all: family, livestock, a devout faith life; his was a successful life from every perspective. In a short time, he lost it all, including his own health. His friends basically told him it was his fault. He had surely done something to displease God. However, as the story begins, God describes Job as
blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. (1.8)
He’s done nothing wrong, yet his life is turned completely upside down. Toward the end of the story, Job rails against God for this apparent injustice, and God’s response is equally forceful. It goes on for three chapters, but here’s a highlight:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? (38:4-5, 8-11)
God puts Job in his place by reminding him that God is God and Job isn’t. Because of his human limitations, there will always be some things in life that will never understand. Paul’s says the same thing, though a little more gently, in 1 Corinthians:
Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (13.12)
No matter how hard we look to find connections or to make sense of what happens to us, there will be times when life’s events remain a mystery. We may not like it, but that doesn’t mean living with the mystery is somehow unfaithful.
Here’s another biblical message:
God Will Never Leave Us Or Forsake Us
Ours is a God who desires a personal relationship with us. Not some cosmic clockwinder who gets the world working and then heads to Disneyland on vacation. Speaking to the Israelites on their entry into Israel. Speaking to his disciples the night before his betrayal. Speaking to the early Christian community trying to live out their faith before Jesus’ return: God will never leave or forsake us. Why? Because of who God is, the name revealed to us at Christmas: God is “Immanuel” – God with us. (Matthew 1.23)
The Christmas Promise
God so loved us that he became one of us; Our heavenly Father took on human flesh and lived among us as one of us. That’s the power behind this incredible gift of God in the flesh; what the church calls the “incarnation.” Author and Pastor Martin Marty wrote movingly about this in the Lutheran Magazine several years ago:
Tucked into that long Latin word (Incarnation) is a short syllable – carn. When carn shows up in the dictionary it usually signals wild, messy, ungodly things. Carnage: as in the slaughter of flesh. Carnal: as in the lust of the flesh. The incarnation tells us God is involved with carn, with the wild and messy, but not ungodly things that go with our flesh. When we suffer, we know that God identifies with us, having suffered in our carn, in our flesh. When we are tempted, we take strength from knowing that so was the “true God from true God” incarnate in Jesus. When we die, among the tears are God’s tears. When good things happen to us, we rejoice knowing that God rejoices with us.
God has sent us a savior who knows us and who cares so very deeply for us. He walks with us through all the joys and sorrows this life has for us. This gift transforms our lives with healing and peace. It makes us whole when we feel broken. It reunites us with God and each other when we are estranged. And it gives us hope when we are weeping, that the darkness we experience won’t last. For with the psalmist, we can proclaim:
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Ps 30.5)
Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we have a promise that is sure: The power of God’s love is stronger than the power of death. As a result, God will turn our tears into joy. As we listen carefully to what Scripture really says we can know God’s character, we can trust God’s plan for us, and we can hold onto God’s promises. Amen