Sermon For Sunday, January 14, 2018
1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
God forgive me, but I have blamed God, in the past, over this verse. In the depths of my own pain, I used this verse to turn away from God. I hid in my burning anger at His seeming silence in the midst of so much suffering- not just my own or those close to me, but for people in general. I've heard others recite this to me, in times of extreme pain, as if it's supposed to comfort me. As if, right in the heart of the most pain and deep sorrow I've ever felt, some smiling bible quoter is going to help me by testifying AT me. In truth, it just made me angry. It drove me further from God and deeper into my own sense of loneliness and helplessness. I thought to myself, 'Good for you, God has your back, you understand things I don't- but I am overwhelmed, confused, and simply at my limit!'. I know that I am not alone in this feeling and that these types of situations can drive people away from God.
What made me so angry when hearing this verse is that, just on the face of it, it appears NOT true. Yes, I said it- NOT TRUE. Talk to non-believers, and those in that "grey" area of faith, about this idea that God doesn't allow anything to tempt you beyond your abilities, and you'll get some very vitriolic reactions to a general sense that this verse just doesn't play out in "real life".
We've all seen people we clearly believe have been given more than they can handle. In many cases this also can apply to us. Who hasn't been to a place where they might have considered suicide? Maybe it didn't reach that point, but you felt you were totally lost and simply going on but without any real life left- dead inside and just going through the motions. If the feeling of total desperation and helplessness hasn't reached us personally, we have all known someone who has, whether we knew it or not. In my former work as a police officer, and my current work as a pastor, I see this constantly through suicide, drug addiction, and countless other ways of self-destruction. Seeing a person who has just killed themselves is heartbreaking. It's as if their pain has frozen them in their last moment of agony and aloneness. And then the verse above pops into my head and I remember my searing anger at God for letting suffering seem to prevail.
It is worth noting that, much of my anger at God stemmed from a feeling of great compassion, empathy, and love toward those who seem to have been tempted beyond their abilities. Seeing the corpse of a person who was alone, at their wits end, choosing to take their own life in despair, can be incredibly hard to see. I know that God wants us to live, and live in an amazing truth, but that is in such stark contrast to seeing someone who couldn't go on anymore. The pain and loneliness this person endured before having to do this to themselves to escape the pain hits you right in the stomach. I feel no judgement, just great sorrow that they felt so alone. I wonder if the words in this verse would have given them comfort, or led them to more feelings of anger and failure as it had done to me in the past.
Being stricken with a disease myself, I know some of the dark places one can go when the suffering overwhelms you. I have intimate knowledge of feeling totally alone and misunderstood by the world. The last thing I wanted to read or see during those feelings is some great proclamation by some pastor who thinks they can touch the pain with their faith. It almost makes the path of faith harder to walk since it makes one feel like an even greater failure. You might think, "What am I missing that all these other people seem to have found?" Quite simply, what many in this state simply want is relief. They want to know that God will help and that He is there. I wanted what the verse says and what, so often, we can't see is there.
So, what changed for me? Why is this verse no longer a stumbling block to my relationship with God? Well, I can tell you that the pain didn't go away. The pain actually got worse. And I can't emphasize enough how angry I was at God. I can't emphasize enough how I railed against this verse and it's apparent lack of truth.
What changed for me is at once so simple, and yet so complicated. Because of that, I pray that God let's me convey this clearly. There was an arrogance and selfishness attached to my anger at God. Their was a worshipping of myself, the little world I had created for myself, and even of this very life itself. I worshipped at the altar of my own illusions of permanence. I believed in myself, and the life I thought was the ultimate reality, and somehow deserved by me. I thought my life was mine to keep, and that other people had that right too. When that turned out not to be true, I responded with rage that my creation was not permanent and safe. Yes, we all have a faint sense of our mortality, but it's not real until it becomes undeniable true in our immediate experience. When there is no escaping with people, things, thoughts, and the myriad distractions of the world, we are forced to confront our own essential helplessness. Ironically, it was the incessant pain, the reality of a pain that persisted and would simply not relent, that taught me that none of the things I assigned so much value to in life were truly worthy of that value. They could all be taken away in a moment. The pain could literally rip my life apart and burn all my idols right in front of me. Anyone who has been in severe emotional or physical pain knows how quickly the frivolous cares of life can fall away.
And yet the question remains- now that I am in pain, and am realizing my world is not what I thought it was, and that all my safeties are falling away, where is God? What is left? Where is this promise? What about people who are just in pain and don't know what else to do and can't see any fancy philosophy or religion in their experience? This will be hard to take(if it isn't then you wouldn't have any issue with the verse in the first place), and it needs constant reinforcing, for me also, especially during times when my pain takes away my own little comforts that I cling to even though I think I know better- OUR IDOLS HAVE TAKEN THE PLACE OF GOD, AND GOD IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRUE FREEDOM WE HAVE ONCE WE HAVE SEEN THROUGH THE ILLUSION OF THE THINGS IN THIS LIFE WE'VE LEARNED TO WORSHIP. Read that several times over.
The paradox of this truth is that once we let go of all the idols we have filled our life with, turn to God with all the effort we used to use to cling to worldly things and ideas, only then do we find the true value of the most important things in our life. But now we love them freely, and not as some kind of idol or crutch. We love them without the conditions and attachment that were substitutes for our real ability to love.
We will have just begun to really experience life as we were meant to by God when we let go in order to receive. Surrender in order to win. This theme runs throughout the bible. Jesus tells us that to save yourself is to lose yourself. He's not saying you should just let yourself die, or worse yet, kill yourself. NO! He is pointing out this very paradox that you can never live through grasping. You will never live the life God intended for you until you learn to let go of your idols and be filled with God's grace.
This may seem like a heavy burden to put on someone- especially someone in despair. It is actually exactly the opposite. The heavy burden lies in trying to hold on so hard to things that will never give you comfort. It's like trying to grab water instead of letting it fall into our mouth. It is why the Bible tells us God's "yoke" is light. It can be counter-intuitive to see not doing something as being so difficult. It only seems like a burden when you begin to fall into our common perception that it is we that have to do something or be something different to be with God. YOU simply have to go to him as you are. It is the essence of what Jacob did when he wrestled with the Angel of God. Jacob spent his life with schemes and trickery and ways to get by until, ultimately, he had to go to God just as he was, blending an unimaginable effort to struggle with God with a surrender of his true self to God at the same time.
Need another practical comparison? Think about a sport you've played, or any activity, where you've been 'in the moment'. Some might call it 'in the zone' or 'the flow', but it is a time when you seem to just do things without any effort. Imagine living your entire life like that, but even better. Even when you're in pain. This is what God's Grace is hinting at but can't be understood until it is experienced. So, don't lose faith. Keep going!
No matter how you live and die, whether it be alone and in despair, surrounded by family, an infant without even the chance to go out into the world, or wrestling with the Angel of God himself, God will give you not what you think you need, but what you do need. Let Him.