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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

February 17, 2008

Out of our control

The longer I live, the more I realize how many of the things that happen to me are outside my control.

Unless you have faced hardship or heartbreak as a child, when you’re in your late teens and your 20s, you pretty much feel you can make your own way, and that where you end up is all up to you to decide. But as you age, things start happening to you. Some come as a result of your own mistakes, for sure. But increasingly, things start to pile up that you did not cause, could not foresee, and cannot do much about. You have to learn to live with the changed reality they bring.

It may be the inability to have children, or an unexpected outcome when you have a child. Your parents age, become infirm, and eventually die. You age too, and develop sickness and disease with which you have to live. There are accidents and injuries. People let you down. Your career doesn’t progress. You stall in your acquisition of the good life. Dreams you had when you were younger don’t come true.

When things happen that are out of our control, what can we expect from God?

*****

My father-in-law lived with us for eight years before he died last July. He started really declining in April, and his last three months were difficult for everyone in our family. I found myself, in those months, with a constant knot of fear in my stomach. Fear of his death, yes. Fear of his suffering. And a great fear that his care and his future rested on just two people, my husband and me, who were completely out of our league. We really just did not know what we were doing.

I spent a lot of time in prayer in those days, just trying to deal with the fear. I found what I prayed for wasn't what others might have thought I’d be praying. I did not pray that God would heal him or rejuvenate him. The man was 82, was dying of lung cancer because of his lifelong smoking habit. It was not that I thought God couldn’t do those things. It was more that I accepted George’s situation. What turned out to be critical for me, though, was to know God was there with us, that he had not forgotten about us, and that as we made tough decisions about George, that God would help us make the right ones and do the best we could do by him.

*****

What does God promise us when things out of our control happen to us? He does not promise we will never have problems. Jesus reminds us that in this life we will have many troubles, and he made his home among people who were weary and heavy burdened. He does not promise us that he will make our problems go away. Although God can and does heal people, provide miraculous circumstances to remove us from danger, etc., he does not always choose to do so. We can go to God and ask for our preferred solution—that our divorced parents will reunite, that the disease will be cured, that we will obtain the job of our dreams—but God is not bound to do our bidding. God is not a magic genie in a lamp who must grant our wishes.

Sometimes God does choose to do exactly what we ask. But often he does not. He does something else. Something that may be better for us in the long run, even though we can’t see that. Something that will help us become more Christlike. Something so that we can witness to him. Something that later on, we will be able to help others in a similar situation. So God may not take away our suffering or our sorrow—not yet, anyway.

What God does promise us is that he will not leave us or forsake us.

*****

We can see this pattern throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy and Joshua, God tells Joshua, and through him Israel, that they are about to undertake a major military campaign, which he intends that they win. He tells them they must be strong and very courageous. In other words, it’s going to be tough. But God promises he will never leave them or forsake them.

Please note God was not telling Joshua nobody in Israel would be injured or killed in these battles, that there would be no hardships, or that the normal way life works would be suspended. No. God was saying two things. One, that his will for his people, that they would live in the promised land, was going to happen. God was not going to leave them alone when they stepped out in faith for him. And two, that somehow, regardless of what befalls individuals during this time, it will be OK.

Let me say that again: Somehow, regardless of what befalls individuals during this time, it will be OK.

That is hard for us to get our minds around. How can it be that no matter what happens to me, it will be OK?

*****

The Bible speaks to this idea a lot. For example, many of the psalms witness to us about God’s faithfulness and care for those who are in trouble. Psalm 9:9–10 tells us the Lord is a refuge for the oppressed and a stronghold in times of trouble. God will never forsake those who trust him and seek him. But what is the psalmist saying? Is he saying God will change the circumstances of the oppressed or the person in trouble? No, he says God is the refuge, the safe place, when we are oppressed. He says God is our stronghold, our fortified place to go when we are under attack. Then he says that God will never forsake those who trust in him and seek him. We can count on God to be a refuge and a stronghold. Somehow, God is a place where we can find rest in the midst of our circumstances.

*****

One of the things I love to read in the Gospels is when Jesus says the same things God has already said in the Old Testament. In Matthew 28:20, right after telling his disciples what their mission is—to go and make disciples, baptize them and teach them to obey all his commands—Jesus promises them he will be with them always.

What does this sound like? To me it sounds a lot like God telling Joshua that he’s got this big, difficult task for him and Israel, but that they should be strong and courageous because God will not forsake them. Jesus doesn’t say, Hey guys, your life’s gonna be a picnic, don’t worry. No. He says, I’m giving you all this hard stuff to do, but remember, when you’re out there, I am with you always. How long can we expect this will hold true? “To the very end of the age.” In other words, until God calls a wrap on the way things are now and ushers in the new age to come. And who ushers in that new time? It’s Jesus. Jesus promises us he’s got us covered, no matter what.

Another thing I love about Jesus is that he never sugarcoats anything. He doesn’t pull a bait-and-switch on people who would follow him. So, for example, in John 13-17, during the farewell discourse at the last supper, Jesus talks about how hard it is going to be for his followers once he is gone. Their life circumstances are going to be just like his—difficult! But in this passage he also explains to them about the coming of the Holy Spirit into their lives; one of his functions is to comfort. He reassures them that even if in the short run (their earthly lives) things are bad for them, in the long run he is preparing a place for them with the Father. In the long run, their pain will turn into joy. He says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.

*****

What are we supposed to make of this? For my money, the biggest step of faith Jesus asks us to take—and to live by—is this idea that things are not as they seem. You will have trouble. But things are not as they seem! I have overcome the world. I’ve got hard, seemingly impossible work for you to do. But things are not as they seem! So don’t be afraid. Be strong and have courage. You will be persecuted. But do not fear the people who can kill the body. Things are not as they seem!

Jesus says to us, look, you can’t see it yet, but trust me, something better is coming. I know it doesn’t look too good right now, but don’t worry. Something you can’t perceive yet is happening. It’s breaking in, even now. Just believe. Believe what I am telling you. Believe that I will not forsake you. Believe that I’m going to make it all right someday. Believe that this is not the end. Let’s acknowledge something here. Hanging on to God in our tough times is hard. It is a struggle to believe all the time that God’s got our backs.

*****

We may think that God is forsaking us. It sure looks like that sometimes. This is true not just for us today. It was true for people in the Bible too. Let’s go back to the Psalms,those very human expressions of people doing their best to walk with God. Have you ever noticed how so many Psalms follow a see-saw pattern of petitioning God to please be faithful, to please see their plight and act, followed by thanksgiving to God and assertions of trust in him?

There’s a lot of complaining in the Psalms and there’s a lot of thanks in the Psalms. One of the things this does for us is let us know it’s OK to go to God when we waver in our faith. God has heard it all before. It also lets us know that thanksgiving is the proper response when God comes through for us. Psalm 22 gives us all of this.

Many scholars believe Jesus was making this psalm his own prayer on the cross. It opens with the psalmist asking why the God who’s promised never to leave or forsake him… seems to have forsaken him. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

The psalmist tells God how much he is suffering. He is out of favor with other people, who despise and mock him. He is in physical danger, and he is also gravely ill. His situation is so overwhelming to him that he is having a hard time believing God is near and that God really does care.

But here’s the thing. He stubbornly holds on to what he knows God’s nature is, even though the situation seems otherwise. He complains in one verse, but then in the next he’s saying: Yet you are holy… in you our ancestors trusted, they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried and were saved. In you they trusted and were not put to shame. Throughout the Psalm, he goes back and forth: It looks like this to me… but despite it all, I will believe in your faithfulness.

And then in the middle of verse 21 it happens. God’s faithfulness to him comes through. The psalmist is in the middle of saying, Save me from the mouth of the lion! and then there’s a pause. And the psalmist continues: From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me… The rest of the psalm turns to praise.

*****

Jesus knew all about this psalm. He knew the struggle of the psalmist to trust God in his bleakest hour, and he prayed Psalm 22 as his own expression of struggle as he was dying. You and I can do the same today with the psalms, allow them to express what is going on in our lives.

So we have Jesus saying, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

But Jesus knew all about verse 21. Jesus knew how that psalm turned out. And he chose to trust his Father even though it looked like he was forsaken. Just believe. Believe that I will not forsake you. Believe that I’m going to make it all right someday. Believe that this is not the end.

Jesus chose to believe. Jesus also chose to be obedient. As Paul would say, what happened to and through Jesus is the first fruits of this thing that is breaking in. And what it is, is this: it’s God’s real reality. It’s the Kingdom.

Now we believe as Christians that because of Jesus’ obedience, because he went all the way with what he believed, even to death, he broke through. We believe he broke through on our behalf to that place where everything is made right. To that place beyond what looks like the end for us. And we believe that he’s taking us with him.

When we rely on God’s presence in our times of need, he shows us the truth of these things. With each one we go through, when we make God our refuge and our stronghold, we see the real reality a little more clearly. We hear God saying, Believe that I will not forsake you. Believe that I’m going to make it all right someday. Believe that this is not the end.

In a way, that's the essence of being a Christian.

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The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed and a stronghold in times of trouble.
— Psalm 9:9-10