On Sunday morning I was asked to speak for a little bit on the topic ‘God sustains us in difficult times’. I was only given 8 minutes, as I was one of three speakers (Ken and Ciaran were the other two, and they did excellent jobs), which explains the brevity of this as a sermon. Anyway, this was what I said:
Good morning. For the benefit of those of you who don’t know me, I’m Gavin, I’m the drummer here, and I want to talk a little bit this morning about this idea of God sustaining us in difficult times.
I am not someone terribly comfortable with giving a ‘testimonial’ message – I much prefer to take an idea for a walk and see where it leads. But it should come as no surprise, given my unerring ability to make straight for the largest elephant trap I can find, that the theme of this morning’s service has taken me into a famously intractable theological briar patch.
You see, when we talk about God sustaining us in hard times we open the door to some very difficult questions. It is easy to quote Jeremiah 29, verse 11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Or what about Philippians 4 verse 19: ‘And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Jesus Christ.’ I have a friend, Liz Ashmore, who worked in Africa as a missionary for many years. She saw Christians literally starve to death. It becomes much harder to quote these verses glibly in the face of such a reality.
One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett. He is famous for his Discworld series of fantasy novels (which are brilliantly written and often extremely funny, by the way). He is also an atheist. In his book ‘Lords and Ladies’ he writes “Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.” It is important to acknowledge that this is not an illegitimate view. Pratchett’s perspective, based on observational evidence alone, is a justified one.
So what are we, as Christians, to make of this? How do we reconcile the apparent contradictions of what we observe with what we are told? I think we examine carefully Philippians 3 verses 7-11: 7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
We cannot, as Christians, claim that we haven’t been warned. We cannot haul God over the coals and blame Him when things don’t go our way. To know Christ is to participate in His sufferings. Christ, who was tempted, who went hungry, cold and naked; who was wrongfully maligned, arrested and accused; who was ‘without honour’ in his hometown – a place where he was called a bastard (Mark 6:3) – who was beaten, flogged, and finally executed in the most barbarically painful manner a perverted ingenuity could devise – this is the man, this is the God, we are called to follow in all things.
And it is worth it. With all due respect to Terry Pratchett, there are worse things than falling. For the Christian, to die really is gain. This is not a superficial comfort but a core tenet of what we believe. There is no such thing as a ‘mere mortal’ – we all will enjoy, or endure, an existence that stretches infinitely far beyond the heat death of the universe. Our sufferings now may be viewed – if one is able to be philosophical about the whole thing – as merely passing tribulations.
However, and despite my earlier misgivings about testimonial statements, I should say this: I am standing here today suffering from the cold, toothache, and acute sciatica. If I wasn’t floating tranquilly on a sea of ibuprofen and co-codemol I would be in a very great deal of pain simply standing up to address you. And to be blunt, you can’t wax philosophical with toothache. It is simply too determinedly present to be ignored. So in the midst of difficulty – and there are all kinds of difficulties, whether physical like a toothache, or emotional or economic or whatever, that can’t be ignored – what are we to do?
The first thing is to recognise that these are distractions – things that would draw our eyes away from the finishing line, as Paul’s famous metaphor for the Christian life as a race would have it.
The second thing is to acknowledge that these could, if we are not careful, become stumbling blocks to our faith – we all know the story of Job, whose sufferings were used by the devil to attempt to lure him to blaspheme and abandon his God. So we must be careful.
The third thing is to actively turn to God for comfort and succour. He asks us to pick up our burdens only after He has shown us how He carried His. It is important to emphasise that we are not told to work as for the Lord in some things but in all things, under all circumstances.
The fourth thing is to accept that we might simply have a cross to bear, and that we are called to bear it. Remember Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from my lips; yet not my will, but Yours, be done.”
Let me finish now on a slightly unusual note, by quoting the words of a Christmas carol. The third verse of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ goes as follows:
“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In suffering, we break no new ground. We go only where Christ has gone before us, showing us the way, offering His hand in help. Amen.