A couple of weeks ago, as part of our Eastertide preaching series, I spoke in this chapel about what it means to believe. I wanted to challenge the popular understanding that believing means holding a certain set of statements or claims to be true – statements, for example, about God or Jesus or the Bible or salvation. When we speak of believing in this way, Christianity becomes a matter of the head, rather than of the heart. The true meaning of faith has to do with living in a life-giving, life-transforming relationship with the One we have come to know as God – a relationship characterized by love and fidelity and trust. It is not a matter of assenting to certain statements or claims about God, but of living in union with God and allowing God’s life to flow in us, and through us to others.
This morning I’d like to build on that notion of faith as relationship, and speak of how faith can support us and carry us through difficult times and circumstances in our lives. We know that faith does not spare us from the pain of human existence. Believing does not guarantee that we will never have cancer, or suffer the loss of a loved one, or lose a job, or watch a business fail. Believing does not transform all our kids into winners or send us soaring to the heights of success. It does not exempt us from the experience of pain and suffering. It does not make everything right.
But it does make a difference in how we experience tragedy and loss, how we cope with suffering and pain, how we respond to grief and sorrow – and that is what I’d like to speak of this morning.
If I could choose an image for us to keep in mind, it would be a scene from the Acts of the Apostles. In the 16th chapter of that book, we have a description of Paul and Silas in prison. They have been attacked by a mob, stripped of their clothing, dragged before the magistrates, and then given “a severe flogging” – all because they healed a slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit. They are bound in iron chains and locked in the innermost cell of the prison under heavy guard, and it is night. And yet, the author tells us, “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (16:25).
What is it, I ask, that enables these two to praise God in the midst of such suffering? What is it that lifts them above their painful circumstances and allows them to abide in God with peace and joy? How have they come to experience victory in the midst of defeat, to know joy even in pain, to be filled with songs of praise rather than with feelings of hatred or anger or despair? What enables people to respond with faith to circumstances as trying and troubling as these?
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed,” Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth (II Cor.4:8-9), “perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Paul has discovered the secret of faith, the ability to trust God in all circumstances and for all things. Paul knows who he is and to whom he belongs. He has confidence in God and therefore he does not lose heart. He is convinced that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate him or us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” he asks. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?” “No,” he answers, “In all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us.” (cf. Romans 8:31-39).
Paul believes in God. Real believing, the kind we do with our deepest self, is not a product of thinking but of feeling, of knowing in the deep places of our souls that all is well, even when everything seems to have gone wrong. It is a quiet assurance that holds us and calms us and comforts us, and lets us know that it is all right, even though it doesn’t look or feel all right.
Christian pastor and teacher Lewis Smedes tells of a visit he made to a friend who was dying of cancer. As their time together came to an end, his friend looked into his eyes and smiled. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s all right.” Obviously, everything was not all right. His life was ending prematurely. His wife was soon to become a widow, and his children fatherless. His body was wracked with pain. And yet, in some deep place in his soul, faith assured him that God’s grace was sufficient for him even now, in this moment and under these circumstances, and that God’s power was being made perfect in his weakness (cf. II Cor. 12:9). Like Paul, he was convinced that no hardship or distress or bodily pain – not even death itself – could separate him from Christ. He was finding that “in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us.”
Faith gives us the power to look earthly reality in the face, to acknowledge its sad and tragic edges, to feel its cruel cuts, to join the chorus of voices that have railed against its outrageous unfairness, and still to feel in our deepest being that it is good and right and a joyful thing for us to be alive on God’s good earth. Faith gives us the power to see life very clearly, to admit that sometimes it seems all wrong and still to know that, somehow, it is all right. “All shall be well,” Dame Julian of Norwich assures us, “every manner of thing shall be well.” That is the voice and experience of one who knows God and believes.
Smedes writes, “When I feel that I am loved while everything about me says I am unlovable, then I am believing, really believing. When I feel that life in this valley of death is much worth the living, then I am believing. When I feel gratitude enough to make me glad, then I am believing. When I feel that all is right with me even when everything around me is the pits, then I am actually believing.”
This type of faith comes by discovery, not by effort. It is not a feeling we can manufacture. It comes to us rather as a gift, often unexpected – the simple assurance that God is God, and that if we can just be still and know that truth, all will be well. We cannot manufacture such faith, but if we have experienced it we can recall it and trust it again and again.
What can help us come to this place of confidence, peace and assurance? I’d like to suggest these things:
1. Recall God’s faithfulness. In a few moments we will stand before the altar and recall God’s goodness to us. We will thank God for our creation, for God’s liberation of Israel from captivity, for the prophets who have called us back to God, and above all, for the Word made flesh, Jesus our savior. In addition to these collective memories, each of us will have our own memories of times when God has been present to us in love and in faithfulness. Holding these memories of God’s steadfast love and undying faithfulness, we find courage to stay the course in trouble times.
2. Practice detachment. Learning to let go of our notions of how things should be and finding freedom to work with things as they are will bring us peace and freedom. Believe that God is at work in every person, in every situation, and trust God’s promise to bring good out of every evil, victory out of apparent defeat, new life out of that which we had assumed was dead.
3. Give thanks in all circumstances. Not for pain and suffering itself, but for the knowledge that God is with us in it, and that God has promised to use it for our good. Develop the habit of giving thanks for what is, rather than lamenting what is not. Look upon your life as a gift, with wonder and awe. Practice gratitude.
4. Do good to others. Faith grows when we pass it along to others. Love deepens when we practice loving. Find joy in serving others.
5. Make simple acts of trust. “When I am afraid,” writes the psalmist, “I put my trust in you” (Ps. 56:3). Brief prayers, the simple lifting of our hearts to God, the opening of our hands to release whatever trouble or worry we are carrying into God’s hands. “Cast all your anxiety on him,” the author of I Peter urges us, “for he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). My God, I put my trust in you.
Suffering is part of human experience, and we will not escape it. But we can believe, like Paul and Silas in that 1st century prison, in the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, and find out for ourselves that even when everything seems all wrong, it can still be all right.
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