Faith in Tough Times
Faith in Tough Times
From the editor
I'm confident we all would agree that 2008 was a tough year: war, a tumbling stock market, natural disasters, the continued threat of terrorism, and an ever-widening political divide. You can't help but wonder if 2009 is going to be more of the same. Perhaps your listeners—perhaps you—need an encouraging (but challenging) word to get the year started. Hendricks offers a critical lesson we all need to take to heart once more: only faith in a worthy object can see us through hard times. Sounds like a message that is both timely and timeless.
Chad Walsh wrote an intriguing book entitled Early Christians of the Twenty-First Century. He provoked my thinking with words like these:
Millions of Christians live in a sentimental haze of vague piety, with soft organ music trembling in the lovely light from stained-glass windows. Their religion is a pleasant thing of emotional quiver, divorced from the intellect, divorced from the will, and demanding little except lip service to a few harmless platitudes.
I suspect that Satan has called off his attempt to convert people to agnosticism. After all, if a person travels far enough away from Christianity, he or she is always in danger of seeing it in perspective and deciding that it is true. It is much safer, from Satan's point of view, to vaccinate a person with a mild case of Christianity so as to protect him from the real disease.
Do you ever ask yourself, "Why is it that so many Christians have a mild case of Christianity?" I think the answer is this: an inadequate and imprecise view of faith. We tend to have a sloppy, spongy view of this critical subject.
As it says in Hebrews 11, "Without faith it is impossible to please God." In other words, it's an absolute essential. But I believe the greatest error is to think that faith is unique to Christianity. It is not. God wove it into the system. And it is impossible to live without faith.
I didn't observe any of you come into this room and examine your chair before you sat in it. You just automatically committed yourself by faith to the chair, assuming it would hold you. Most of you got here by car; you slid in the car and turned on the ignition and away you go. You don't have a clue as to what goes on behind the scene. You can't explain the process. You just trust it.
The last time you went to a doctor, he wrote out a little prescription. You couldn't read it. In fact, you wondered if anybody could read the thing! Then you took it to your pharmacist. Have you ever discovered when you give a pharmacist a prescription, he always disappears behind the screen? That shakes me up. I often wonder what in the world the guy is doing back there. I wonder if he slept through his course in pharmacy school. But he gives you the little bottle and says, "Take it three times a day," and by faith you do exactly what he tells you to do. Faith is woven into the system.
Learning faith in the marketplace
We're going to study a page out of our Lord's life. I've sometimes called this section "Christianity 101" because I think it deals with the kind of basic stuff that most of us are trying to get a handle on. Let me give you the context, because it's rich.
At verse 35, chapter 4, it begins, "That day. … " That forces you to go back. What day? Why, the day they heard the lectures on faith by the world's greatest teacher. But you don't learn faith by a lecture. You learn it in life. You don't learn it at Mount Hermon. You learn it in the marketplace.
That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, "Let's go to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with them. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke (literally, "kept breaking") over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. And the disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"
Who said that? Not a seminary professor but a group of professional fishermen, who had spent their whole lives on that lake, who were experienced, who knew exactly how those storms came up.
The Sea of Galilee is 690 feet below sea level. It is surrounded by hills with narrow, gorged valleys that act as wind tunnels. The prevailing winds come from the west across those mountains, and there's this tremendous down draft. In a matter of five to ten minutes, you can have the most serious storm you have ever seen. The last time I was in the Holy Land standing by the Sea of Galilee, in ten minutes I saw the most vicious storm I have seen—I witnessed these same phenomena.
The disciples had seen this many times. They had never seen one like this. As far as they were concerned, this was it. Things were desperate.
So, "Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! Be still!' (literally, "Be muzzled and remain so"). Then the wind died down, and it was completely calm."
I'm sure many of you have been out to sea. Mount Hermon sponsored a cruise recently, and some of us had a fantastic time on that cruise. If you've ever been on the sea, if you are in the midst of a storm and that storm stops, the sea does not. It continues often times for days. Here, you see, you have a two-fold miracle. Not only does the wind stop, the waves stop.
Then in verse 40: "Jesus said to his disciples, 'Why are you so afraid?'"
The Greeks were great communicators. So when they wanted to emphasize a word, they would take it out of the normal word order, bring it up to the front of the sentence. This is like taking a red pencil and underlining it five times. That's what you have here: "How is it that you, of all people, are afraid?" Who? The guys who just heard the lecture. The guys who heard the Lord say, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." They wrote a blue book, and it came up with a big, fat F on it. And that wasn't for faith. They flunked. "Do you still have no faith?"
"They were terrified and asked each other, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'"
Do you identify with them? Let's suppose one of those Texas tornadoes gets out of the alley, and it sweeps through here, and all of a sudden the whole section of the building is off, and everyone of us is transfixed. And all of a sudden you hear me get up and say, "Be still!" What would you do?
You'd turn to the guy or gal next to you and say, "Hey, man, the problem isn't up in the sky, it's up in his head!" But if all of a sudden it became still, you would begin to say to one another, "Who is this guy? I never heard him before, but what difference does it make?" That's exactly the response in the text.
Faith depends upon its object.
I want to give you three lessons. The first lesson we learn about biblical faith is that biblical faith always depends upon its object. You can have little faith in thick ice, and you survive. You can have great faith in thin ice, and you drown. It's not the amount of faith. It's the object in which you place it.
That's why the Bible never says, "Believe." It always says "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." That's why the Bible never says, "Have faith." It always says, "Have faith in God."
Jean and I flew out from Dallas to San Jose. Let's suppose we said, "Maybe we could save Mount Hermon some money." So I look for some unsuspecting individual running around the Dallas airport and say to him, "Hey, man, would you fly my wife and me up to San Jose?"
"San Jose? Where's San Jose?"
"Well, I don't know all together, but it's out on the West Coast a little south of San Francisco."
"Sure. I don't know where it is, but, yeah, I'll take you."
So we go over to what is supposed to be an airplane. We look at the thing, and the fuselage is held together with baling wire. Half of the tail assembly is gone. One wing is absent. The prop is bent. I say to him, "You have been up before, haven't you?"
He says, "No. As a matter of fact, I never have been. But I'm fascinated with flying. Hop in!"
If I get in that plane, that is not faith. That's foolishness, because the object of my faith is absolutely worthless.
Who was it that said, "Let's go to the other side"? That's why when they see him calm the storm, the disciples say, "Who is this?" They not only heard what he said, they saw what he did. Jesus' miracles, his works, always authenticate his word. What he said and what he did were thoroughly compatible. (By the way, that's why you need to get to know him.)
J. B. Phillips wrote an interesting book some years ago entitled Your God Is Too Small. That's our problem. I find that the more I get to know him, the person, the more my faith begins to grow. That's because it's then placed in a worthy object.
Faith is a developmental process.
God is not simply interested in solving problems; he's interested in developing your faith. He knows exactly how to do that.
I find that most Christians know only two things. They know the Cross, and they know the coming of Jesus Christ. In the past, he died on the cross; in the future, he's coming. But what about in between? Why were we left here?
Salvation has three tenses to it. There is a past: we were saved from the penalty of sin; that happened at the Cross. We will be saved from the ongoing presence of sin; that will happen at the coming of Christ, or when we go to be with him.
But there's a third dimension—not only the past, not only the future, but the present. We are being saved from the power of sin. I've got to ask myself, as you have to ask yourself, "Am I making any progress? How long have I known the Lord?"
We have four children. We had a little growth chart on the back of one of our closets in our old home, where you get all the kids to line up, and you draw the line and put the date and the kid's name. I was going away for a couple of weeks, and my younger daughter, Bev, said to me, "Daddy, I'm going to grow. I'm going to grow. I promise I'm going to grow!"
I said, "Wonderful, Bev."
I went away for two weeks. As always, I looked forward to going home. And when I got off the plane, she said, "Daddy, come home quick! You got to see how much I growed!"
So we went home. We got to the closet with the mark. My friend, it couldn't have been any more than a fraction of an inch, but the little kid bounced up and down, "See, Daddy, I told you. I told you. I did grow!"
Then we went into the living room for a little trysting time. She asked me one of those questions you wish kids wouldn't ask you. She said, "Daddy, why do big people stop growing?"
I don't have a clue as to what I told her. But do you ever ask yourself whether as a Christian you are growing old or growing up? How long you've been a Christian?
"Well," you say, "I've just known the Savior for a year."
Wonderful! How much have you grown?
Faith has problems.
God brings storms into our lives because you don't develop your faith in the calm. You develop your faith in the crises. You develop your faith when you have no other way to look but up to the only worthy object of faith.
And so we come to lesson number three: biblical faith has problems. Oops!
A Christian is not a person without problems. A Christian is a person who has the problem solver living within. I've been through the entire Bible I don't know how many times, and I cannot find one verse of Scripture that promises you exemption from problems. Enablement—plenty of verses. But not exemption.
I happen to believe that there is no growth without tension. That's why Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, "There hath no testing taken you but such as is common to man." It's not unique to you that you have difficulties in your marriage, that you have problems with your temper, that you have whatever you have. These are common to all people.
"But God is faithful," continues Paul, "who will not allow you to be tested above what you are able, but who will with the testing provide a way of escape that you may be able to bear it." The ultimate test is this: are you going to hold up or fold up?
James puts it this way, "Count it all joy when you fall so as to be completely surrounded with a variety of testing." (By the way, did you notice? He says, "Count it all joy when … ," not if.)
You say, "How strange!"
Not strange—supernatural. Peter says, "Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you as though some strange thing happened to you." You say, "Well, Dr. Hendricks, I don't have any problems now."
Well, be patient. They're on their way.
What do we often do? You get down and say, "O Lord, make me like your Son." And the moment he goes to work, you say, "Lord, what happened?"
"It's nothing. I'm just answering your prayer."
Remember that Jesus Christ, although he was a Son, "yet learned he obedience." How? By the things that he suffered.
Look to God.
In Numbers chapter 13 is one of my favorite Old Testament stories. The children of Israel were wending their way through the wilderness, and they came to a place called Kadesh, in the Desert of Paran, just a wide spot in the road—except for a decision they made there, a decision that determined their destiny.
God had told them to go directly into the land. They said, in effect, "Hey, let's not play the part of a fool. Let's appoint a committee." So, in typical committee fashion, they come back with a majority and a minority report.
The majority says, "Man, we can't go up there. There are giants in the land. Besides, we're just a collection of grasshoppers."
But there are two men that bring back the minority report. Do you remember their names? Joshua and Caleb. I defy any one of you to give me one of the names of the other ten men, yet they're all found in the opening verses of Numbers 13. We say the majority is always right. Really? In this case, the majority was flat wrong. And it was the result of a majority decision that an entire generation perished in the wilderness. The only guys who ever did get into the land were Joshua and Caleb.
Now what's the difference between Joshua and Caleb and the other guys? You think Joshua went in and said, "Caleb, I don't see any giants in the land. Do you?" I think the guy had 20/20 vision. I think if CBS had been on hand to interview them and said, "Who are you?" they'd say, "God's grasshoppers reporting for duty." The difference is this: they also saw God.
What do you see? You've got problems with you kids? You've got problems down at the office? You've got problems in a marriage? You wonder how long it will last? The ultimate issue is not whether you have problems but whether you know anyone who can do anything about them. Where is your focus?
Jean and I have discovered in the process of rearing four children that it is easy to look at the giants, the problems, Redwood variety! You look at yourself, a man and a woman welded together in a marriage, and you say, "Good night! We're not going to pull this off." I happen to believe that's why many times God allows us parents and grandparents not simply to hit the bottom but to break clean through, so that the only way we can look is up.
At such times we say, "O God, if you don't do anything, nothing will be done." He loves to hear that because then when he works, you'll never be able to say you were a great parent. All you'll be able to say is "To God be the glory; great things he hath done!"
Conclusion: The storm will not last forever.
I was reading this wonderful passage today—such a simple, delightful story. I said to myself, "Hendricks, you need to remember two truths. If Jesus Christ is in your boat, it will never sink. And, second, the storm will not last forever."
I don't know many of you. Those I do know, I know only casually. We come to a conference like this, and everybody looks so neat. We look as if we've got it all together. Then you sit down with a dear guy or a dear gal some place, and, boy, they begin to spill their guts and tell you about what's going on behind the scenes.
I was here just two weeks ago at a men's conference. I have never heard such excruciating stories. One guy had a prominent position, a comfortable lifestyle, and then in one 24-hour period, it was gone. He came to this conference and said to me, "Howie, you need to know I'm going home, but my wife doesn't know it. My children don't know it. And I want you to pray with me." That's a pretty heavy storm. And he said, "I believe God is developing my faith."
But I'll guarantee you, if that's true in your life, in my life, in anybody else's life, it's because we've learned that there's only one worthy object for faith, and his name is Jesus Christ. And the more you know of him, the more you're going to cry out as the disciples did: "Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?"
You're going to discover that God is very much interested in developing your faith, and that he's the perfect educator. He knows the ideal curriculum to make you like Jesus Christ. And he's going to bring some problems into your life because he loves you.
He loves you so much he not only accepts you as you are, but he loves you so much he will not allow you to remain the way you are. He has a wonderful plan to conform you to the image of Jesus Christ.
To see an outline of Hendricks' sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".
Dr. Howard Hendricks is chairman of the Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also involved in ministry through books, publications, radio, and video.