This sermon is part of the sermon series "Cross Roads". See series.
For the longest time, I hoped that my brother, Jeffrey, would return to the Christian faith. He once was an active Christian, but something turned off the "faith switch" as he finished high school. During college he walked further away from belief in God. Then, as he moved through law school, Jeff became engaged to a Christian woman named Barbara, a person of extraordinary intelligence and grace. I would suspect Jeff's faith was reignited to some degree. But then Barbara was involved in a taxicab accident, leaving her in a coma in a New York Hospital. I remember sitting with Jeffrey late into the night as he cried out his first heart-felt prayer in years: "God, please save Barbara!" Inwardly I cried, God, why did this happen? What will you do now, God? God, where have you gone?
In spite of the faith that I cling to, there are times when I feel cross at God. I champion his cause to the best of my ability, and I can get so angry when it seems that he messes things up. There are times where he lets horrific things happen. He seems to be away on vacation, refusing to answer his mobile phone or his mail. He blows tremendous opportunities to do things I know he can do—things that would earn him great fame and many followers. In such moments I shake my fist at heaven and pray through clenched teeth: "Life hurts, and it seems like you're gone!"
How do we reconcile our desire to trust in the existence of a God of love and power with the apparent absence of that love and power at some of life's most painful and opportune moments?
The prayers of Jesus
If the Bible was silent, sugary, or stupid on this topic, I could not be a Christian. If it ignored the topic or spoke as ignorantly as some do at times, then I imagine the Bible would have become one of those books you can only find on eBay. But the Bible is actually quite articulate on the subject I've raised. It speaks to us in the most personal and persuasive voice possible—in the voice of the one person who completely understands the hurt of human life and the heart of God. The Bible speaks in the voice of God's own Son. Listen, as I read to you from Luke 22:39-45:
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples
followed him. On reaching the place, [Jesus] said to [his disciples],
"Pray that you will not fall into temptation."
Something is about to happen that could derail Jesus' relationship with God. That's what temptation is at its core: it is any experience or enticement that has the capacity to disconnect us from a life-nourishing relationship with God. Jesus knows that such an experience is coming. In a very short time, he is going to be taken, tried, tortured, and tacked up on wood. It's going to look like evil's team completely owns the game. It is going to appear as though God and all that is good is gone. It's not just going to look bad; it's going to feel awful. It's going to be a scene of wailing like that night when Barbara lay bleeding. It's going to be like that time when your loved one was taken—when you were pierced by pain and the very sinew of your life was being stretched and torn. Jesus sees a similar situation coming, and he knows such situations can lead any of us to fall to the temptation to disbelieve in the love and power of God.
In that Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, we're told that "[Jesus] withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 'Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.'" Jesus prayed: God, if there's a Plan B—if there's another way of getting your perfect will done that does not require drinking this cup of suffering, hanging on a cross, or putting these people I love in this place of temptation to doubt your love or power—please exercise that option.
Feelings, facts, and faith
It's significant, though, that Jesus goes on to pray this final line: "Yet not my will, but yours be done." These words are important for two reasons. First, these words are a statement of fact. God's will is going to be done, because God is God. I can certainly express my desire for a different road. I can shake my fist at how hard the road is. I can get very cross at God for how certain situations make me feel. But the fact of the matter is that God is God. He marks out the highway of his purpose as he chooses. One of the awful, but awesome gifts contained within our suffering is the invitation to face and embrace this oft-forgotten and unpopular fact: this universe was designed for the fulfillment of God's desires and not primarily for ours.
This line in Jesus' prayer is also a statement of faith. It begins with the Aramaic word Abba, which is translated "Father" or "Dad." Jesus is saying: Because you are my Father, I'm telling you how I feel. I'm admitting how hard this is, Dad. I'm simply saying that if you can do what needs to be done in some other way, I would really like that. But you're my Father, and in my clearest moments I know that you love me. So I am choosing to put my faith in you." It's interesting to note that verses 43-45 go on to say: "An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow."
Jesus and his disciples lived their lives in a swirl of feelings, facts, and faith. It didn't stop at Gethsemane either. At the Cross the darkness is so profound that Jesus feels as though God is gone. In Mark 15:33 we read: "At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'—which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" The feelings of pain and the onslaught of the world's sin are so profound that they lead Jesus into the temptation to doubt his Father's love. But the doubt does not last for long. Luke 22:46 records Christ's final words, and they are ones of faith: "Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last."
Throwing the Cross at God
Billions of people were once gathered on a great plain before the throne of God. Some of the people gathered near the front were talking heatedly—not with the kind of cringing humility one might expect before the seat of ultimate accountability, but with angry belligerence. "How can God judge us?" snapped a thin brunette. "What does he know about what we've been through?" She jerked back a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi death camp. Overhearing the woman, a man in another group cried out, "What about this?" He lowered his collar, displaying an ugly rope burn. "I was lynched for no crime but being black." All of the groups of people spread out across the plain had a complaint against God for the suffering he had permitted in their lives. Each group sent a leader to the center of the plain, chosen because he or she had suffered the most. There was a Rwandan, an untouchable from India, an illegitimate child, a victim of Hiroshima, someone killed by terrorists, and many more consulting with one another.
At last they were ready to present their case before God: before they would take God seriously, he must endure what they had endured; he should be sentenced to live upon the earth. "Let him be born a Jew," they said. "Let people doubt the legitimacy of his birth, so that no one will know who his real father is. Let him grow up poor in a wretched, arid land. Let him try to champion a cause so just and radical that it brings the hatred and condemnation of every human authority into his life until even the religious seek his death. Let him be sentenced to trying to describe what no man has ever seen, tasted, heard, or smelled—to try and communicate God to human beings. Let him be betrayed by his friends, indicted on false charges, tried before a stacked jury, and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured and humiliated. Let him see what it is to be utterly alone in his hour of deepest need, completely abandoned. Let God be put to death in the cruelest manner possible, mocked by the world as he dies among thieves."
As each leader announced a portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval rose from the throng. When the last person had finished pronouncing the sentence, a great silence settled across the plain. They all suddenly knew that the world had already thrown the Cross at God.
Where this leaves and leads us
It is only natural in the face of suffering to have some hard feelings about God. Even Jesus wailed, "Take this cup from me" and "Why have you forsaken me?" Being honest about the pain of life and how God seems to have abandoned you is not the opposite of faith; it is part of the journey of faith. Read the Psalms if you need more evidence! It is also important to remember the facts, though. Suffering is an invitation to remember that God is God, and we are not. He is intent upon accomplishing his will on earth as it is in heaven, and there will be times when the exercise of that perfect will, will be painful to us. In those moments, we have a choice to make: will our pain become a barrier or a bridge to a relationship with God? If I turn away from God, I will become bitter. If I turn toward God, I will become better. Larry Crabb, a therapist and veteran of pain, puts it this way: "Every hard thing we endure can put us in touch with our desire for God, and every trial can strengthen that desire until it becomes the consuming passion of our life. Then comes the experience of God: intoxicated on the Spirit, ravished by the Bridegroom, delighted in by the Father—dancing with the Trinity. It's the source of our deepest joy, the real point of living."
The kind of life Crabb describes is what Jesus invites us to take by faith. God knows what it is like to feel the pain of this life. He cares about the pain of his children. But the love of our heavenly Father, like that of our earthly parents, must sometimes work in ways that will seem incomprehensible, stupid, or cruel to his children. Dare to believe that we are held by hands of love so large that the dark valleys we experience are merely the hollows of his fingerprints still at work for good. Here is the core truth I want you to think about: when you choose to trust God in your suffering instead of turning from him—when you choose to do as Jesus himself did—you are on the Cross Road, a road that leads to life.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the great British intellectual, once said in his old age, "Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at that time seemed especially desolating and painful. I now look upon them with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, I say this: if it were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo, the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the Cross signifies, and it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ."
Dare to believe that the blessings of God almighty—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—may yet be poured out to you on a road you might not have the wisdom to freely choose. Trust in the one who walks by your side each step of the way.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.