This morning is the forth in a 4-part sermon series called “Unafraid.” This series is intended to help us live with courage and hope in a time of uncertainty and great anxiety. Isaiah 41:10 is our theme Scripture, which begins, “Don’t fear, because I am with you; don’t’ be afraid, for I am your God.” Today’s message will address the fact that “suffering” almost always accompanies growth of any kind, including spiritual, and that there is some truth the adage, “no pain, no gain.”
Scripture Readings: Romans 12:1-2; John 5:2-9
By a show of hands, who here would choose pleasure and comfort over anguish and distress? Which path would you choose to walk barefooted—a path of sand or path of Canada thistle? Which would you choose—being healed of a deep emotional wound, or not being healed of a deep emotional wound? Would your answer change if choosing the healing meant experiencing painful memories and emotional manifestations of that wound?
In our human brokenness, our inclination is to choose the way of comfort, even at the expense of healing and wholeness. An example of this is told by the Rev. Roy Oswald, in his book, Running Through the thistles, a book about bringing one’s pastoral relationship with a church to a healthy close.
I’ll let him tell the story in his own words. Oswald writes:
“When I was a boy,” Oswald says, “age six, growing up in rural Saskatchewan, my two older brothers and I would often decide to walk home from school over the fields, rather than along the road.It was shorter, to be sure, but occasionally we would come upon enormous thistle patches. I cannot remember seeing anything like it since, but those thistle patches sometimes used to extend for a half-mile or more. In places the prickly patches would be 50 feet to 100 feet wide – in other places 10 to 20 feet. The rest of the field, lying fallow in summer, was tilled soil. We rarely wore shoes to school in the summertime, hence our dilemma: how to cross these thistle patches in bare feet. We did have the choice of walking around them, but since it was the end of the day, we were all tired and hungry. We were anxious to get home. Mother usually had a snack treat for us to tide us over ‘til supper. To walk around the patch would take us way out of our way. The other option was to back up and run through the narrowest part at full speed. Being the youngest – with the least speed and the smallest leg span – I always objected. I was usually over-ruled, however, by my two brothers, who would then each take me by one hand and run me through the thistle patch.
“I can still vividly remember the experience: running full speed in bare feet across 20 feet of prickly thistles, yelping in pain all the way through. When the three of us reached the black soil on the other side, we would immediately hit the dirt and start pulling out the few thistle ends that stuck in our feet. ‘I had four briars get me – how many did you get?’ was a sample of our post agony conversation.
“For me, this story illustrates how some pastors approach their termination periods. They rightly assume that there will be pain involved, so their approach is to run through it as fast as they can.”
It’s that last line that I’ve never forgotten since this book was given to me when my first appointment of coming to a close. They rightly assume that there will be pain involved, so their approach is to run through it as fast as they can. In other words, many pastors consciously choose the quick path, and never really deal with the emotional pain that goes with bringing a pastorate to a close. Why? Because going about it in a slow, meaningful way would entail a kind of emotional suffering that we humans just don’t naturally seek after. The problem is, a failure to choose this kind of suffering also means we miss out on the fullness of life Christ himself suffered to give us.
They rightly assume that there will be pain involved, so their approach is to run through it as fast as they can.
Statistically, I don’t know the percentage of those who eventually quit going to therapy, but my guess is that it’s relatively high. And that’s because dealing with whatever brought you there the first place is confronts you with painful feelings and experiences. And, quite frankly, for many it’s just a lot easier to not deal with it, and just keep going as you’ve always done. On the one hand, this may be understandably easier. But at what cost? Wholeness. Well-being. Healing. Health.
During my cardiac rehab, I was very surprise to learn that at least 25% of those who suffer a heart attack don’t alter their life style one iota. They’ve fully blocked arteries, high cholesterol, are often overweight, and many of them smoke. And one in four keep on eating the same foods, in the same amount, don’t exercise, and many keep on smoking. Why? Because changing your lifestyle is difficult!
For example, going from a sedentary life to an active life of regular exercise feels like you’re trying to break the laws of physics. The first law of physics says an object persists in its state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it. A sedentary person is like a car in neutral gear on a flat surface; on its own, it’s not going anywhere. How do you get it moving? By forcing it somehow. Have you ever tried pushing a stalled car by yourself? It’s very difficult and, depending upon the car, maybe even impossible. Cars are heavy, and don’t move easily by pushing. And the most difficult part is getting it moving in the first place. Well, for many people, that’s similar to the beginning process of changing from a sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle. And knowing how hard it’ll be, some chose to deal with it by not dealing with it.
I tend to think that when it comes to spiritual growth and maturity, we face the same challenge. Have you ever had the experience where you’re bound and determined to read your Bible more, and so you come up with a plan and start in on it, but quickly discover that within minutes of your reading you find yourself being distracted? This happens to me all the time. I’d like to chalk it up to my ADD (attention deficit disorder), but I really think it goes a lot deeper than that. For me, I’m reading the Bible passage and suddenly I have this strong urge to pull out my phone and read the news. Or when I’m praying I find my mind wandering to all the things on my to-do list for the day. It’s like there’s this something deep within my soul that fights my attempts to grow in my relationship with God. I can almost hear a little voice in my head saying, “Oh, you’re fine just as you are; God’s happy with you just as you are, you don’t need to do this. Just move on to the things that really matter. Besides, you can come to this tonight.”
If you’ve ever tried to change your eating habits, you know how tough that can be. In my experience, rarely is the urge to eat the result of being physically hungry. It’s an emotional thing. I’m not hungry, and yet I’m drawn to the fridge or the cupboard to see what there is to eat. And so I say to myself, “Drew, close the door and walk away because you’re not actually hungry.” But within five minutes I’m right back at the fridge again. There’s this inexplicable pull to eat something, even when I’m not hungry.
Here’s what I know about food. Certain types of food release endorphins, which have the effect of making you feel good. That feeling is what I’m really after. And when I don’t give in to it, when I close the door and walk away, that urge to eat something shouts out even stronger and louder. Until I give in and eat something.
Now, I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that this deep urge to eat when I’m not hungry is born out of as wound somewhere deep in my soul. And the momentary satisfaction I get from eating at that point in time is simply a way of avoiding the pain of actually dealing with that wound. It’s the same thing with excessive drinking. Drinking that much is done in order to numb the hurt. And as soon as you stop drinking, you’re confronted with all sorts of stuff that causes great suffering.
You and I both know that dealing with whatever is causing that pain is the only way to move past it and become whole. There is no healing without suffering. The two go hand in hand. Or think of this way: there is no resurrection without first choosing the cross.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes across a man who’d been sick for thirty-eight years. He’s sitting on the side of a pool of water, probably similar to a fountain that we might find in large city square. And Jesus asks him point blank, “Do you want to get well?” Based on the man’s response, the reader is left to think that it was the belief back then that it had a healing effect on the first person who slipped into the pool after the water was stirred. And from what he says, he’s remained sick for all these years because someone else always managed to slip into the water ahead of him.
I want you to notice how he answers Jesus’ question. It’s a yes or no question, but he doesn’t answer with a yes or no.
Jesus: “Do you want to get well?”
Sick man: “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me” (John 5.6-7).
Remember, this man had been sick for thirty-eight years. Are we to believe that over the course of thirty-eight years he was never able to be the first to slip into the pool after the water was stirred? That someone else always got there before him? No. I don’t buy it for a minute! I believe that’s the man’s ‘false self’ talking. The voice of the false self is the one that always has an excuse or a complaint; it’s that part of self which is always able to pass the buck or blame someone else.
I think the truth is, he didn’t really want to be well. After thirty-eight years he’d grown to appreciate the “benefits” of being sick (people giving him money, food, etc). Being healed of that sickness would upset the apple cart he called life. It’s interesting to note that in many healing stories we’re told that the one Jesus healed left rejoicing. But in this story, all we’re told is that the man “picked up his mat and walked away.” That’s it. No rejoicing. No thanksgiving. No telling his friends. He just walked away. Now, I may be reading into the story a little bit, but a part of me thinks he wasn’t so happy with his healing. Maybe he realized that he was being forced to deal with some things in his life that until that day he’d chosen to leave well alone.
Aren’t we a lot like this sick man at the well? Jesus asks us the same question. Do you want to be well? What’s our answer? Outwardly we say yes. But inwardly, deep down, more often than not our real answer is, not really. Because we know that to accept the healing Jesus offers is to also accept the suffering that will accompany that healing.
You see, suffering in a Christian way means asking the right questions and focusing on Heaven. The question is not, “Will I suffer?”, but “How will I suffer?”
- 1 Peter 4:12: “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
- James 1:2-3: “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”
- Romans 5:3-4: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”
Also, let’s not forget that our [spiritual] healing was only made possible through Christ’s own suffering. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Holy Spirit spoke of Jesus’ crucifixion: “By his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5). And then Paul tells us that part of our walk of discipleship is sharing in our Lord’s suffering. “And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17). But in the very next verse he reminds us that our current suffering for Christ’s sake leads to a future glory: “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (v. 18).
To suffer for the sake of Christ certainly could mean enduring suffering on account of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Such is the case with countless Christians around the world who live in places where being a Christian is illegal, and can land you in prison or, worse, get you killed. But that’s not our suffering, is it? The cross we’re most often called upon to bear has more to do with choosing the pain that comes with facing head-on our deepest emotional and spiritual wounds.
Paul tells us to not “be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12.2). You see, I believe that emotional and spiritual healing begins with a transformation of the mind. It begins when we consciously and intentionally choose to not turn away from the suffering associated with emotional and spiritual growth. It means leaning into those challenging memories and experiences of the past, but doing so knowing that there’s a great reward waiting for you on the other side. Wholeness. Healing. Greater joy and purpose. Increased passion for life. Deeper love for God and other people.
In his book, Setting Love In Order, Mario Bergner describes his experience of reaching the point where he thought he was going to die because facing his deepest wounds was so painful. He writes that one night he laid down on his bed and hung his head over the side and said out loud, “Here it is Lord, my head is about to fall off my neck. I hope your hands are there to catch it.” But his willingness to face that pain resulted in a great healing of his heart. He continues, “Once I came out of the abandonment depression and came present to the memory of my childhood isolation, I had new eyes to see the humble folks of Ambridge. Previously, I had felt contempt for their failure to desire anything more than life in a broken down steel town. Now I loved them. I could choose to love them. The next Sunday in church, after receiving communion, I sat in my pew and felt the rough hands of Jesus wiping my tears away. A new joy and comfort welled up from within me.”
Friends, experiencing that new joy and comfort doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when we allow God to reach deep into the roaring tempest of our heart, minds, and souls, and apply the soothing Balm of Gilead (Jesus) upon it. The hymn Be Still, My Soul is taken directly from Psalm 46, where the psalmist speaks of times of trouble, and earthquakes, and mountains crumbling into the sea. At the end he speaks on God’s behalf: “Be still, and know that I am God!” As we all know, being still can be a challenge. We’d rather stay busy and not have to deal with the deeper things of the heart. But the psalmist reminds us that being still before God brings joy and peace, and removes fear.
In the words of the hymn writer:
"Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief and pain;
leave to your God to order and provide;
in every change God faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end."