The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 17, 2019
In his book, The Call to Joy and Pain, Ajith Fernando, a Christian leader from Sri Lanka who ministers to the urban poor, observes that Christians in every culture face their own unique challenges in growing more like Christ, for they all have specific theological blind spots that hinder their spiritual development.
Christians in the affluent First World operate with a deficient understanding of the value of suffering, Ajith notes. They think of trials and pains just as things to be avoided or at least minimized. Thus, many celebrate the first half of Philippians 3:10, in which Paul declares his desire to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, even while they suppress their memory of its second half, in which he declares his desire to know “the sharing of [Christ’s] sufferings”.
We Christians in the First World want to think that the good life is one of greater comfort, convenience and freedom from pain, when the fact is that the best life is one of greater conformity to Christ’s example – and that may take trials and troubles!
That means it can be bad for us to have a life that is too good. Consider three propositions:
First, some of God’s best gifts can only be unwrapped in darkness. Jesus wasn’t joking when he said that the blessed ones, the truly happy ones, are those who suffer from dark days of mourning, hungering and thirsting, poverty and persecution. For such distress puts us in touch with our need of God, and motivates us to seek Him. As we draw near to God, we come to know God; and as we come to know God, we come to see that He is worth any price to find, even the most painful.
Of course, while hardships soften some toward God, they harden others. It depends on what’s in a person’s heart. The same hot sun solidifies mud and liquidizes wax. We need then to look at what our heart is made of. For that will determine whether dark days of difficulty will make us bitter or better. But, either way, in the darkness we see who we really are. It can be bad for us to have a life that’s too good.
Some of God’s best gifts can only be unwrapped in darkness. Second, some of them can only be obtained with struggle. Think of character development and conduct improvement as like weight-lifting – which is also called resistance training. We develop arm strength by lifting our hands above our heads while overcoming greater resistance in the form of heavier and heavier dumbbells. In the same way, we become stronger in moral or spiritual qualities by overcoming increasing resistance to the practice of them.
For example, if we want to develop greater patience, we need people who try our patience to a greater and greater degree. As we overcome the resistance in us to put up with them, we grow more patient. Likewise, if we want to love more, we need people we don’t see as lovable or lovely. As we overcome the resistance in us even to give them the time of day, let alone to come alongside them to help them, we grow more loving.
Similarly, if we want to trust God more, we need circumstances which tempt us to doubt God’s faithfulness and goodness. As we overcome the resistance in us to take riskier steps in trusting and obeying God, we grow stronger in faith.
A chrysalis needs its struggle against its cocoon. As a former caterpillar pushes out against its cocoon and breaks through it into a larger world, it builds the muscles to make use of the wings nature has given it and to fly free in the air. If someone came along and tried to “help” the chrysalis by peeling back its cocoon with tweezers, it would end up a winged creature that couldn’t lift off the ground and it would soon die.
Out of love God brings us struggles, and leaves us in them, that we might develop inner power and be able to soar high. God blesses us by afflicting us with obstacles and opposition to overcome. It can be bad for us to have a life that is too good.
Some of God’s best gifts can only be unwrapped in the darkness, and others only obtained with struggle. Third, some can only be appreciated and appropriated with our dying to our egocentricity and our living under adversity and with sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Some of the trials and troubles we are rewarding in terms of what they do for others. If we pay the costs for speaking the important truth when no one wants to hear it, for loving broken and unreliable people when they might well betray us or even turn on us, or for fighting the good fight for justice when there are powerful vested interests fighting against it, there is no immediate pay-off for us; but there is a demonstration before others of the reality of God’s righteousness and God’s grace.
Then there is also this: Our pain and grief can, if we endure them with the right heart, make us more tender-hearted toward others who suffer pain and grief. Our difficulties give us the ability to empathize, and the willingness to stand in solidarity with the suffering and lighten their burden by sharing its weight.
Our suffering makes us living proof that adversity can be endured – and happiness, still had. After all, it is, Jesus said, those who lose their life for Him and for love’s sake, who find life at its best. It is those who die to their egocentricity and get caught up in a cause larger than their self-centered concerns, who know His resurrection power and the great joy of making the world better than they found it.
One chilly December evening in 1955, in the capital city of Alabama, a 42-year-old, bone-weary seamstress boarded the Cleveland Ave. bus to return home after a long day of work. She took a seat about half way back, just behind the front “white” section. At the next stop, so many new folks boarded that every seat in the white section got filled. The bus driver then ordered all the blacks in the front row of the colored section to move in order to provide a seat for one white man.
Thirteen months before, the seamstress had heard a young preacher named Martin Luther King say, “The Christian is called to be, not a thermometer conforming to the temperature of society, but a thermostat transforming its temperature.”
The seamstress, a Christian named Rosa Parks, chose to take a stand by remaining seated. She knew that she’d be making that stand alone. She knew that she’d be arrested, and almost anything could happen to her in jail. She knew she’d lose her job and might be unable to make ends meet for a long while. But, for righteousness’s sake and love’s sake, she refused to move. She joyfully, defiantly chose to share in the sufferings of Christ and become like Him. She determined, not to conform to, but to transform the temperature of her society. She embraced a trial, which she could have avoided, for the benefit of many.
It can be bad to have a life that is too good. For often God’s best gifts are unwrapped in darkness, obtained against opposition, and meant to serve others even more than ourselves.
May we make it our resolve to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings! Let us pray.