The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
The greatest challenge to either developing or maintaining faith in God lies in what is called the problem of evil. The distribution and the degree of human suffering does not seem to speak well of God. It sometimes appears so excessive as to throw into question His love, and sometimes so random and unfair as to throw into question His justice. This is the most formidable obstacle of all to having faith.
Two speakers address us from today’s scripture. In the first five verses, the speaker is an unidentified person who encourages us to keep believing despite the terrible and seemingly senseless things we endure. In the last three verses, the speaker is the Lord God Himself who assures that He will see us through them all and make our endurance of them worth our while.
Some think that the first speaker got carried away in his well-intentioned effort to encourage faith, and made an unrealistic and untrue promise when he told those who trust God that “no evil shall befall you”. Would not some members of this congregation who have suffered horrific abuse deny that statement – as would many others, say, the Sudanese Christians who are watching their children being sold into brutal slavery.
And what are we to make of the fact that Satan quoted the very next words this first speaker says, our verses 11 and 12 here, when in the wilderness he tempted a fasting Jesus to break faith with God the Father. Jesus knew, even if the first speaker did not, that, while God’s angels might keep his feet from dashing against a stone, He was still walking to the stony hill called Calvary and all its suffering.
Maybe the promise, “No evil will befall you,” is to be taken as a non-literal, hyperbolic figure of speech – as when Jesus in Luke 21 told his disciples that “not a hair of your head will perish” right before he predicted that their enemies would “put some” of them “to death”. There Jesus seems to be saying, in a poetic way, that, while all of His followers would be preserved to eternal life and given new, never-to-suffer-again resurrection bodies, some of them would pass through pain and martyrdom to get there. Maybe the promise, “no evil will befall you,” is saying that in the perspective of eternity nothing that hurts us now can harm us ultimately, that God turns our curses into blessings, and that God puts evil to such good effect that it almost ceases to be evil.
If that makes any kind of sense, then we have found a way to keep believing in God by bearing in mind the big picture. When God speaks for Himself in the last three verses, how this is so becomes apparent. In those verses God never comes close to promising the faithful immunity from adversity. What He does promise is this: “Those who love me, I will deliver.” That promise acknowledges that those who love Him will be in some kind of adversity from which they need deliverance.
God also promises: “I will be with them in their troubles.” That is not to promise any protection from adversity, but to promise His engagement with their adversity. In other words, God will make the problem of evil His own, and make Himself a personal answer to it. God will share the evil we endure, enter into the pain of it, and shoulder the heavy weight of it. The God who on a cross once absorbed all righteous wrath against evil will always absorb into His heart all the evil that befalls us and keep it from doing us any lasting damage.
The big picture is that God does not remain remote and serene in the bliss of heaven, but immerses Himself in the hell of our excessive and unjust pain. He hurts over our hurts; He suffers with us in our suffering.
From the vantage point of Calvary, and of God’s continued companionship in our troubles, we can believe that He still cares as he shares all our troubles, and that He will in the end fulfill His promise to “rescue” us from them.
Listen again to what God promises here to those who love Him, and believe: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” Of the course, the only long life with which He will satisfy some will be the everlasting life of eternity.
In this world, it is not always clear how there could be a compensatory reward for the horrendous suffering some endure. But, if this is not the only world, if there is in fact a hereafter, it is easier to hold on to the faith that, given the greatness of God and the smallness of understanding, that all things are possible for God – and that He can, and He will, make up for all the injustice and seemingly irredeemable suffering of what Paul calls this “this present evil age”.
We can trust and believe in God when we bear the big picture in mind that includes the next world. But, if we are wise, we will also trust and believe when we are only bearing in mind the big picture within this first world.
I think of Bethany Hamilton, a Christian and a competitive surfer. When she was just a teenager, a shark bit off her left arm. When years later someone asked whether she ever wished she could relive the day she lost her arm and choose not to go out into the ocean, she answered, “No, for I have with one arm been able to embrace more people than I ever could have with two.”
Whatever a single event means, it means by its relationship to other events, many of which we don’t know at the time, and to purposes and opportunities for making a difference for which we don’t yet have a vision. Thus, an evil may look from our limited perspective to be nothing but an evil, when it in fact is an essential part of something very, very good that God is doing. Thus, we may need to doubt our doubts, as we acknowledge how our finite minds know too little to rule out how much good can do by means by things that are, in themselves, very bad. An analogy may make this clear.
Imagine you are a mountain lion that has been caught in a trap. Now, imagine God to be a caring and sympathetic animal lover who wants to liberate you from your pain and distress. This animal lover knows she can’t win your trust fast enough. So, in order to help you, she shoots you with tranquilizer dart. As she fires those painful bullets into you, you think she is attacking you and trying to kill you. You can’t imagine how she might be doing this out a compassionate concern for your deliverance.
Then, once she makes you too weak to fight her, she starts to push your leg further into the trap. You think she is trying to sharpen your wounds and finish you off, but in truth she is releasing the tension on the spring in order that she might pull your leg free. Your meager understanding, your lack of ability to see the big picture, keeps you from seeing her as anything but an enemy.
But God has shown us the big picture. Let us remember. Let us believe He always and only means us well. Let us trust His promise to be with us and to deliver us in the end. Let us pray.
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