Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)
John Hannah, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, tells a story about Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation:
Early in their marriage, Martin Luther’s wife watched him battle bouts of depression, even question God’s willingness or ability to help him through a difficult trial. Without saying a word, she donned a black dress and veil, reserved for times of mourning. When Luther asked why she was dressed that way, she commented, “Because God is dead. It’s obvious by the way you’re acting.”
A widow in ancient Israel suffering during a long drought was approached by Elijah. He asked her to make him some food. She replied that she was about to starve to death. And yet she begins her complaint with the words, “As surely as the LORD your God lives…” the standard phrase throughout the Old Testament:
“As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” (1 Kings 17:12)
God provided for her during the drought, even though the situation was hopeless. Many Christians live their lives as practical atheists; they give a nod to God, acknowledge God, but live as if he’s not really there and won’t take care of them. Or worse, they think that he doesn’t really care about them or he’s mad at them; certainly, they live as if convinced God won’t be there for them when they most need it.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to some Christians in Rome once, arguing that “we know that suffering produces perseverance.” (Romans 5:3-4) On the face of it, his words seem to make little sense. In my experience, suffering mostly produces quitting. In the news every day, I hear commentators, whenever something goes wrong or not according to the original plan, suggest that whatever was being done should be stopped: “cut our losses.”
Several years ago as a professor in a large Christian college I witnessed incoming freshman students stand up in chapel and give glowing testimonies of their certainty that they had arrived in the center of God’s will by coming to a Christian college. A few weeks later I was not surprised to counsel the same students as they nearly wept in my office over the results of their first mid-term exams and questioned if perhaps God’s will for their life was for them to leave the college and go somewhere else.
Quitting is easy, and becoming discouraged is easy. Martin Luther and college freshman are not the only people who have thought that maybe they should just give up. Moses received a calling from God of the sort that most of us can only dream of: God appeared in a burning bush, gave him a couple of miracles to perform, and ordered him to rescue the enslaved Israelites from Egypt. Although reluctant to go, he finally got back down in Egypt and enthusiastically announced to the slaves that he’d come to rescue them. They were under whelmed, but willing to feel a bit of hope. Moses then performed for the pharaoh, telling him that God wanted his people set free. He did his tricks with the staff turning into a snake and his hand into a leprous, diseased thing.
Pharaoh responded by oppressing the slaves even harder, so that they denounced Moses for having increased their misery.
Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22-23)
So Moses complained to God that everything that God had instructed him to do was only making things worse.
God comforted Moses by simply telling him to be patient and not to give up. God told him to just keep on doing what he’d asked him to do.
Moses would experience one failure after another in the next nine attempts to free the people of Israel. Only after the tenth attempt—a plague that slaughtered the firstborn of Egypt—did the Pharaoh finally relent and release the people.
Moses had to persevere. It might have been easy after the plague of hail, for instance, to just throw in the towel. “Look God, there’s been blood in the water, frogs everywhere, annoying gnats, clinging darkness—and has even one Israelite been set free? The pharaoh hates me, the people of Israel hate me, and we’re not any freer than when I started all of this. It’s just the same thing over and over again and no payoff. I give up.”
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’ ”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” ( Luke 18:1-8)
Jesus’ point was that even if a corrupt, selfish, horrible man like that judge would eventually accede to the pleadings of a widow, then it should be obvious that God will take care of his people, since God actually loves them.
Our human reaction to trouble sometimes makes about as much sense as the man just hired to a new job. The first day he’s excited, goes about his work with enthusiasm, and heads home happy. Same with the next day. But on the third day, he starts wondering, “You know, I haven’t seen any sign of a paycheck from all this work. I thought I was supposed to be getting paid like fifty thousand dollars a year, but my bank account’s still just as empty as it was three days ago. I check my mailbox every day and there are no checks, just more bills. What gives? Why do I keep coming?” And so he asks himself the same questions the next day and the next. Three weeks go by and still nothing. On the twenty-ninth day of the month he wakes up, looks at his alarm clock, and just shuts it off. “They say I’ll get paid at the end of the month but here it is with only one day left to go and still nothing. No sign of that pay check! Why go on?”
It is so easy for us to become discouraged in life, to imagine that the current struggle is an indication that somehow all our suffering has been pointless. Naaman had to dip himself seven times into the Jordan before his leprosy left him (2 Kings 5). Do you suppose after six dips without a change he was wondering whether there was any point in dipping himself yet again?
Someone once wrote that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. But if you’re pounding on a rock with a sledge hammer trying to break it, what happens if you stop one blow short of making it shatter? What about the Israelites who walked around Jericho over and over and the walls just kept looking as strong as ever? (Joshua 6)
Perseverance in the face of obstacles and trouble and repeated failure is not insanity. Suffering can produce perseverance if we can recognize that suffering is just the road to hope. Suffering is not an end to itself; it’s a journey. Why quit before you reach the goal? Is the goal unworthy just because the going got tough?
Remember something else. They don’t build statues to those who say, “It can’t be done,” “it’s not worth it,” or “why don’t you quit?” There aren’t any monuments memorializing Job’s wife who told him “curse God and die” when everything hit rock bottom for him (Job 2:9). They don’t build monuments for those who tried to stop people from being great, who told the struggling artist that “surely you can find something more productive to do with your time.” They don’t name streets after those who don’t take risks.
When the first colonies are built on the moon and distant planets, the only thing that might be named for Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale who did everything in their power to stop NASA and cut its funding will be the latrines. But cities and statues named Werner Von Braun, Neil Armstrong and John F. Kennedy will be common, don’t you suppose?
There is no glory for those who play it safe, who always want to be careful, who never risk anything, who quit. God did not call us to an easy life, a life where everything happens quickly and without trouble. If you think God’s will means life runs smoothly and you’ll never hurt, then you’ve not been paying much attention to life or the Bible.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
On occasion I have to preach. Sunday was one of those days, and this is what I talked about. One of the young people, after the sermon, commented as he sat down at the drums for the closing songs, “it was like listening to Sheldon give a sermon.” He was referring to the character in the television series, Big Bang Theory. Everyone in the congregation got the reference. Yes, we have that sort of church.