In life we face many difficulties, and these difficulties challenge not only us, but our faith. Deep struggle can lead us to question God, His love, or even His existence. The readings today speak to us of these sorts of difficulties and prophetically interpret them for us. Let’s take a look at these readings in three stages.
(This homily is recorded here: Recorded Sermon mp3.)
I. The Disillusionment of Deep Despair – The reading from the book of Job articulates clearly the feeling we have all experienced at one time or another. Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? … I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me … then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days … come to an end without hope … I shall not see happiness again.
Job is weary and worried, angry and anxious, depressed and discouraged. We’ve all been there, and although we pray it won’t happen, life sometimes cycles back to difficulties even if times are good now.
Notice Job’s disillusionment. He says, “I shall not see happiness again.” Suffering has a way of drawing us into the illusion that things will never be good again, that we will never again be happy or content. In effect, “My life is over.” Yet Scripture says that troubles don’t last forever, that weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Psalm 30:5). And even for those of us who are soon to die, even death opens to a new and lasting joy provided we are faithful.
But Job is caught in the illusion that his life is over, that it will never be good again. Those of us who know the story of Job realize that this is not the case and that Job will once again be blessed, blessed with an even greater abundance than he once had.
And we, too, can get lost in illusion when suffering sets in. A thousand questions, usually starting with “why,” beset us. And while the mystery of suffering cannot be fully explained, we ought to remember that God permits some trouble in our life. For by it, certain purposes can be accomplished if we are faithful. God permits trouble to …
- DIRECT us – Sometimes God must light a fire under us to get us moving. Problems often point us in a new direction and motivate us to change. Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the innermost being. When our way gets a little too easy, we tend to stray from God.
- INSPECT us – Our problems have a way of helping to show what we’re really made of. Through trials and tests in my life, I’ve discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony, and trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. 1 Peter 1:6 says, Trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure.
- CORRECT us – Some lessons we learn only through pain and failure. Sometimes we only learn the value of something (health, money, a relationship) by losing it. Psalm 119:71-72 says, It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. And Psalm 119:67 says, Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep your word.
- PROTECT us – A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. It might be as simple as getting stuck in traffic, thereby avoiding a terrible accident had you been in the intersection at your usual time. It might be something more serious like losing your health, but along with it losing your ability to sin so seriously. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him into slavery, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
- PERFECT us – Problems, when responded to correctly, are character builders. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Romans 5:3 says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us, they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character. And 1 Peter 1:7 says, You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it.
So Job’s disillusionment needs a little correction. God hasn’t given up on Job. There’s no doubt that Job is in trouble, but trouble doesn’t last forever. God is permitting it for a reason and for a season. But seasons change.
II. The Destination of Distressed Disciples – Simply put, when troubles come, run to the Lord in prayer. In today’s Gospel we are told, Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her … Next we are told, When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.
Note the instinct of the people to turn to the Lord “immediately.” A few old songs come to mind:
- I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.
- What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
- King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long to hear some sinner pray.
Indeed, while God may have reasons for permitting us to experience difficulties, it does not mean that He does not want us to ask for grace, strength, and healing. The Book of James says, simply, “Ye have not because ye ask not” (4:2).
In seeking the Lord, we ought to remember that perseverance is also an important aspect of prayer.
- Luke 18:1 – Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
- Luke 11:8 – I tell you, though [the grouchy neighbor] will not get up and give [his neighbor] bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
- James 5:16 – The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
Here, too, another song comes to mind: If I hold my peace my Jesus will be coming for me one day, King Jesus is a-listenin’ when you pray. Thus, in times of distress and difficulty, the instinct of a true disciple is to hasten to the Lord in prayer, to seek comfort, consolation, healing, and peace.
III. The Doctrine of Divine Decision – We have reviewed two truths that are in some tension: that God sometimes permits trouble for a reason and for a season, and that we ought to run to the Lord in prayer when trouble comes, seeking help and relief. One teaching (understandably) seeks immediate relief. The other teaches that weeping may endure for a night or a season, but always for a reason, a reason deemed by God to be both necessary and productive.
In the end, the “Doctrine of Divine Decision” says that we should accept with trust that God knows what is best. We run to Him for relief and permit Him to say, “now,” or “later,” in answer to our prayers.
In the gospel today, we see both teachings illustrated and held in tension. First, as we saw above, many came to Him for healing, and He healed them all. But then we read further,
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.
Therefore, note that although some remained back in the town seeking immediate healing, Jesus chooses to move on. For He is not here simply to be a medical miracle worker, but rather (as he says) to preach the Kingdom and ultimately to die for our real problem: our sin. It may be difficult for us to hear Jesus say “no” to this town and move on. In fact, Peter indicated some frustration at Jesus’ having left the town to pray and then ultimately move on. Nevertheless, for those back in Capernaum, Jesus said to some of them, “now,” and to others, “wait.” This is His decision and He knows what is best.
But consider this: either way we are blessed. Either we experience healing now and then have a testimony to give, or our faith is strengthened because we receive the Good News that Jesus has come to preach that everything is going to be all right. Consider the fact that Scripture says,
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
In other words, even the difficult things in your life, by God’s grace, work unto good. They bring some benefit. God permits the struggle for now because he knows of the benefit. Scripture also says,
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6).
Thus our sufferings have a purpose (as we saw above): to strengthen and purify us.
The Doctrine of Divine Decision leaves things up to God. Whether now or later, everything is going to be all right if we trust in God. If there is a delay, it’s because He has His reasons. And even if these reasons are mysterious and irksome for us, the decision is God’s.
Here, then, are some directions for disciples when dealing with difficulties. Briefly put, reject disillusionment, run to Jesus, and respect His decision.
This song says, “You don’t have to worry, And don’t you be afraid, Joy comes in the morning, Troubles they don’t last always, For there’s a friend in Jesus Who will wipe your tears away. And if your heart is broken, Just lift your hands and say, Oh I know that I can make it; I know that I can stand; No matter what may come my way; My life is in your hands.”