The following commercial illustrates the truth that “life is hard.” In this case, it comes in the form of being pelted with items ranging from broccoli to rubber duckies to an entire wedding cake. These sorts of things are only important in a decadent, privileged cultural environment. In less privileged parts of the world people struggle with basics like getting enough to eat, finding shelter from the elements, and avoiding fatal diseases. Most of the “problems” we have in the modern United States are ones others wished they had.
Nevertheless, the basic truth remains: life is hard. Its challenges are many, and God permits them to humble us and to help us grow. You have to be tough to endure. The Lord expects us to “man up” to our challenges.
In life we face many difficulties; they challenge us and 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.
I. The Disillusionment of Deep Despair – The reading from the book of Job clearly articulates the feeling we have all experienced at one time or another. Job said, 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. 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). This is true even for those of us who are soon to die; death opens to a new and lasting joy provided we are faithful.
Job is caught in the illusion that his life is over, that it will never be good again. This is not the case; he will once again be blessed, blessed with an even greater abundance than he once had.
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 so that 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 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. Trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. (1 Peter 1:6).
CORRECT us– Some lessons can only be learned through pain and failure. Sometimes we only learn the value of something (e.g., health, money, a relationship) by losing it. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72). Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep your word (Psalm 119:67).
PROTECT us– A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents us from being harmed by something more serious. It might be as simple as getting stuck in traffic, thereby avoiding a terrible accident up ahead. It might be something more serious like losing our health, but along with that losing our 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 – When responded to properly, problems are character builders. God is far more interested in our character than our comfort. 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. (Romans 5:3). You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it (1 Peter 1:7).
So Job’s disillusionment needs a little correction. God hasn’t given up on him. There’s no doubt that he is in trouble, but trouble doesn’t last forever. God is permitting it for a reason and for a season, but seasons change.
In the depths of despair, such encouragement may not seem emotionally satisfying, but the first step in improving our mental outlook is to root our thoughts appropriately in what God teaches.
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 … 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 (James 4:2).
In seeking the Lord, we ought to remember that perseverance is also an important aspect of prayer.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).
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 (Luke 11:8).
The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).
Here, too, the words of a song come 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 has us seek immediate relief from God. The other reminds us that weeping may endure for a while, but it is 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 either “now” or “later” in response to our prayers.
In the Gospel today, we see both these teachings illustrated First, many came to Him for healing and He healed them all. But then we read this:
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 have 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 moving 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.
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 that everything is going to be all right. 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 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: 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.
The words of this song say,
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 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
One of the more puzzling aspects of demonology is the freedom that Satan and demons appear to have in roaming the earth, causing trouble. If the condemned are consigned to Hell for all eternity, why is Satan allowed to wander about outside of Hell? Isn’t he supposed to be suffering in Hell along with his minions and the other condemned? Further, it doesn’t seem that he is suffering one bit, but rather having a grand time wreaking havoc on the earth. How do we answer such questions?
Some texts in Scripture do speak of Satan and the fallen angels as being cast into Hell:
God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4).
And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day (Jude 1:6).
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [likely a reference to the age of the Church and the going forth of the Gospel to all the nations] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3).
Yet other texts speak of the fallen angels (demons) as being cast down to the earth:
But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—the ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Rev 12:8-9).
The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it” (Job 1:7).
Thus, though consigned to Hell, it would seem that some or all of the demons have the ability to roam the earth as well. Demons, however, do not have bodies and thus do not “roam the earth” the way we do. Their “roaming” is more an indication of their capacity to influence than their ability to move from one place to another. Further, Satan and demons are described as being “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness.” This is likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or “roam” is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, just that it is not unbounded. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!
Near the end of the world, Scripture says that Satan will be wholly loosed and will come forth to deceive the nations for a while; after this brief period, he and the other fallen angels will be definitively cast into the lake of fire and their influence forever ended.
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, … their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).
So for now, demons do have influence, but it is limited. At the end, their full fury will be unleashed, but this is only to bring about their final, complete defeat, after which they will be forever sequestered in the lake of fire.
Why God permits some demons the freedom to wander about the earth is mysterious. We know that God permits evil as a “necessary” condition of freedom for the rational creatures He has created. Angels and humans have free, rational souls; if our freedom is to mean anything, God must allow that some abuse it, even becoming sources of evil and temptation to others.
For us, this life amounts to a kind of test: God permits some degree of evil to flourish yet at the same time offers us the grace to overcome it. Further, there is the tradition implied in Scripture that for every angel that fell there were two who did not (Rev 12:4). Thus, we live not merely under the influence of demons, but also under the influence and care of angels.
On account of temptations and trials, our “yes” to God has greater dignity and merit than it would if we lived in a sin-free paradise.
As to Satan having “a good time” wreaking havoc, it would be too strong say that demons and Satan do not suffer at all. Demons, like human beings, suffer both victories and defeats; there are outcomes that delight them and those that disappoint and anger them.
Anyone who has ever attended an exorcism can attest that demons do suffer great deal, especially when the faithful pray and make pious use of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., holy water, relics, blessed medals, rosaries). Faith and love are deeply disturbing to demons.
We all do well in the current dispensation to remember St. John Vianney’s teaching that Satan is like a chained dog: He may bark loudly and froth menacingly, but he can only bite us if we get too close. Keep your distance!
While these videos are light-hearted, their message is serious:
We in the West live in a place and at a time in which almost every burden of manual labor has been eliminated. Not only that, but creature comforts abound. Everything from air conditioning to hair conditioning, from fast food to high speed internet, from to indoor plumbing to outdoor grilling, from instant computer downloads to instant coffee machines. You don’t even have write letters anymore, just press send and a text or email is delivered nearly instantaneously. Yet despite all this it would seem that we still keenly experience life’s burdens, demonstrated by the widespread recourse to psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs.
It is increasingly clear that serenity is “an inside job.” Merely improving the outside and amassing creature comforts is not enough. A large fluffy pillow may cushion the body, but apparently not the soul.
Jesus wants us to work on the inside and presents us a teaching in today’s Gospel on being increasingly freed of our burdens. He doesn’t promise a trouble free life, but that if we will let Him go to work we can grow in freedom and serenity. Jesus gives a threefold teaching on how to do this: by filiation, imitation, and simplification.
I. Filiation – At that time Jesus exclaimed, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
Note how Jesus contrasts the “wise and learned” from the “little ones.” In so doing, Jesus commends to us a childlike simplicity before our heavenly Father, our Abba, our “Daddy-God.” This is the experience of divine filiation, of being a child of God, of being one of God’s “little ones.” The wise, learned, and clever often miss what God is trying to do and say, and because of this, they feel anxious and stressed.
It is possible for a person to study a great deal, but if he doesn’t pray he isn’t going to get very far. The Greek word translated here as “revealed” is ἀπεκάλυψας (apekalupsas), which more literally means “to unveil.” Only God can take away the veil and He does so for the humble and simple. Thus Jesus commends to our understanding the need for childlike simplicity and prayerful humility.
Half of our problem in life, and the overwhelming cause of our stress, is that we think too much and pray too little. We have big brains but small hearts, and so we struggle to understand God instead of just trusting Him. Though our reason is our crowning glory, we must never forget how to be little children in the presence of God our Father. No matter how much we think we know, it isn’t really very much. Jesus’ first teaching is filiation, of embracing a childlike simplicity before our Daddy-God.
What does it mean to be childlike? Consider how little children are humble. They are always asking “Why?” and are unashamed to admit that they do not know. Children are also filled with wonder and awe; they are fascinated by the littlest and biggest of things. They know they depend on their parents and run to them instinctively when they’ve been hurt or at any sign of trouble. They trust their parents completely. Children are always asking, seeking, and knocking.
Thus Jesus teaches us that the first step to lessening our burdens isto have a childlike simplicity with the Father, wherein we are humble before him, acknowledging our need for Him and complete dependence upon Him. He teaches us to have a simplicity that is humble enough to admit that we don’t know much and want to learn from Him, a wonder and awe at all that God has done, and an instinct to run to God when we are hurt or in trouble. Above all, Jesus teaches us by this image to grow each day in our trust of Abba, and in our confidence to ask Him for everything we need. Scripture says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). An old spiritual says, “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.”
Yes, run, with childlike simplicity and trust.
So here is the first teaching of Jesus on letting go of our burdens: grow in childlike simplicity and trust before God, your loving Father and Abba.
II. Imitation – “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” Jesus commends to us two characteristics of Himself that (if we embrace them) will give us rest and relief from our burdens. He says that He is meek and humble of heart.
What does it mean to be meek? The Greek word used is πραΰς (praus), but there is some debate as to how it is best interpreted. Aristotle defined “praotes” (meekness) as the middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Hence, the meek are those who have authority over their anger.
However, many biblical scholars contend that Jesus used this word most often as a synonym for being “poor in spirit.” What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to be humble and dependent upon God. By extension, it means that our treasure is not here. We are poor to this world; our treasure is with God and the things waiting for us in Heaven. This is a source of serenity for us, for when we become poor to this world, when we become less obsessed with success, power, and possessions, many of our anxieties go away. To the poor in spirit, the wealth of this world is as nothing. You can’t steal from a man who has nothing. A poor man is less anxious because he has less to lose, less at stake. He is free from this world’s obsessions and the fears and burdens they generate. Jesus calls us to accept his example and to grow in our experience of being poor in spirit.
Jesus also says that He is humble of heart. The Greek word use is ταπεινός (tapeinos), meaning lowly or humble, and referring to one who depends upon the Lord rather than himself. We have already discussed this at length above, but simply note here that the Lord Jesus is inviting us to learn this from Him and to receive it as a gift. The Lord can do this for us. If we will learn it from Him and receive it, so many of our burdens and so much of our anxiety will be lifted.
Here, then, is the second teaching Jesus offers us so that we will see life’s burdens lessened. He teaches us to learn from Him and to receive from Him the gifts of being poor in spirit and humble of heart. The serenity that comes from embracing these grows with each day, for we are no longer bound by the shackles of this world. It cannot intimidate us because its wealth and power do not entice us; we do not fear their loss. We learn to trust that God will see us through and provide us with what we need.
III. Simplification – Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. The most important word in this sentence is this one: “my.” Jesus says, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
What is a yoke? Essentially “yoke” is used here as a symbol for the cross. A yoke is a wooden truss that makes it easier to carry a heavy load by distributing the weight along a wider part of the body, or by allowing the weight to be shared by two or more people or animals. In the picture at left, the woman is able to carry the water more easily with the weight across her shoulders rather than in the narrow section of her hands. This eases the load by involving the whole body more evenly. Yokes are also used to join two animals and help them work together in pulling a load.
What is Jesus saying? First, He is saying that He has a yoke for us, that is, He has a cross for us. He is not saying that there is no burden in following Him. There is a cross that He allows, for a reason and for a season.
Easy? Jesus says that the cross He has for us is “easy.” The Greek word χρηστὸς (chrestos) is better translated as “well-fitting,” “suitable,” or even “useful.” The Lord is saying that the yoke He has for us is suited to us; it is well-fitting; it has been carefully chosen so as to be useful for us. God knows that we need some crosses in order to grow and He knows what they are. He also knows what we can bear and what we are ready for. Yes, His yoke for us is well-fitting.
Note again that little word: “my.” The cross or yoke Jesus has for us is well-suited and useful for us. The problem comes when we start adding things of our own doing to the weight. We put weight upon our shoulders that God never put there and did not intend for us. We make decisions without asking God. We undertake projects, launch careers, accept promotions, and even enter marriages without ever discerning if God wants this for us. Sure enough, before long our life is complicated and burdensome; we feel pulled in many different directions. But this is not the “my yoke” to which Jesus referred; this is largely the yoke of our own making. Of course it is not easy or well-fitting; Jesus didn’t make it.
Don’t blame God, simplify. Be very careful before accepting commitments and making big decisions. Ask God. It may be a good thing, but not good for you. It may help others, but destroy you. Seek the Lord’s will. Ask advice from a spiritually mature person if necessary. Consider your state in life; consider the tradeoffs. Balance the call to be generous with the call to proper stewardship of your time, talent, and treasure. Have proper priorities. It is amazing how many people put their career before their vocation. They accept promotions and special assignments, thinking more about money and advancement than their spouse and children. Sure enough, the burdens increase and the load gets heavy. This is what happens when we don’t ask God or even consider how a proposed course of action might affect the most precious and important things in our lives.
So stop “yoking around.” Jesus’ final advice to us is to “take my yoke,” but only that. Forsake all others. Simplify. Take only His yoke. If you do that, your burdens will be lighter. Jesus tells us to come and learn from Him. He will not put heavy burdens on us. He will set our heart on fire with love. And then, whatever yoke He does have for us will be a pleasure for us to bear. What makes the difference is love. Love lightens every load.
There’s something about the commercial below that reminds me of this Scripture passage:
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and he is gone,
and his place knows him no more.
but the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:15-19).
In this video we watch a young boy age before our very eyes and then vanish.
I’m not crazy about the Santa figure; in my opinion, something more edifying would have been better, but at his best, Santa means Holy One and as such can represent God. Although the “places” of the man forget him, the Santa figure does not. As the commercial ends you might see the man’s grandchildren (his “children’s children”) in the background.
The world has a cruel indifference to us, but God remembers us as the apple of His eye.