Tuesday, May 13, 2014

May 11, 2014 Real Life, Real Faith: Passing the Test of Faith

Job 13:1-15

My mom and dad never said so, but I believe they thought something about my siblings and I.  Actually, there were times when they probably thought a lot of things about my siblings and me, and not all of them positive!

But one of the things I imagine they thought about us was the difference between our experiences as children and theirs.  I did not suffer want as a child.  I did not suffer loss.  I did not suffer hardship to any great degree, but my parents did.  My dad was a young boy when his father passed away and his father’s family tried to take him and brother and sister away from their mother.  My mom, as I’ve told you before, was adopted as an infant by her aunt, who was a widow already struggling to raise eight children on her own.  My parents faced a lot of struggle as they grew up.  I did not.

I wonder what they thought about the differences in our early years.  I wonder if they thought we weren’t as strong emotionally and spiritually.  If they did, they were probably correct. I think their experiences gave them a strength and depth of character, faith, and emotional reserve that was deeper for them than me.

There are many studies about the differences in faith between those of my parent’s generation and my generation and those that follow.  One of the differences is the higher likelihood that someone in my generation or younger will walk away from their faith.  There is much speculation about why this is true, but I have my own suspicion – perhaps it’s because we don’t possess the strengths of character and faith to the level of previous generations.  Maybe it’s the case to say that when the going gets tough, we walk away.

As we continue our series of messages from the book of Job, which we will conclude next week, we’ve noted that Job’s story is greatly lacking in cheerful content.  The story of Job is tough and difficult, but life is often tough and difficult, and we cannot be in denial of that fact. 

Job asked a lot of questions.  Job spent a good deal of time defending himself against the accusations of his friends.  Job had moments of great despair.  Job certainly must have felt like giving up at some point even on life itself.  But, interestingly, Job never questioned his faith, or the idea of faith.  No matter how painful the loss, no matter how deep his grief, no matter how alone he felt, Job held to his faith.  We need to come to an understanding not just of the realities of life’s difficulties but of the resources that are available to face those realities, and one of those resources, as we see in Job, is that of faith.

So let’s read our Scripture passage for this morning, a passage where we hear the pain and struggle of Job, a passage where he speaks to his three friends out of his despair and the hurt of their accusations, but ends with Job making an amazing declaration.

I’ll add that this may seem like a rather strange passage to read on Mother’s Day.  It’s kind of harsh and reveals the brutal realities of Job’s experience.  But, on the other hand, maybe it’s perfect for Mother’s Day, because becoming a mother – becoming a parent – can reveal the brutal realities of life as we worry about the world our children will inherit and we worry about what life will bring to them. 

I will also add that it is a temptation for churches to divorce themselves from some of the harsher realities of life.  It’s easy to come into church and create an atmosphere that presumes everything is perfect in our lives, when, in fact, our lives have a good deal of brokenness and struggle in them.

1 My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it.
2 What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you.
But I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.
You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you!
If only you would be altogether silent!  For you, that would be wisdom.
Hear now my argument; listen to the pleas of my lips.
Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf?  Will you speak deceitfully for him?
8 Will you show him partiality?  Will you argue the case for God?
Would it turn out well if he examined you?  Could you deceive him as you might deceive a mortal?
10 He would surely call you to account if you secretly showed partiality.
11 Would not his splendor terrify you?  Would not the dread of him fall on you?
12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.
13 “Keep silent and let me speak; then let come to me what may.
14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy and take my life in my hands?
15 Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.  I will surely defend my ways to his face.

Isn’t that an amazing declaration Job makes at the end – Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.

There are some people who truly earn the right to speak their mind, and Job earned that right.  Job, as one who lost everything dear to him in life, had a right to speak his mind.  And he did.  He speaks against his friends, he asserts his desire to plead his case before God, and most impressively, Job finishes this deeply emotional speech by affirming his faith in God, even to say that though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.

How does one manage to get to the point of such a deep and abiding faith?  And are we able to follow the example of Job and pass the test of faith when life is coming apart around us?

I don’t know where I first heard the story, but a young lady came home from school one day very upset.  She had done poorly on a test and had an argument with a friend.  Across her test she had written the words this is the worst day of my life and slammed it down on the kitchen table.  Her mother picked up the paper and wrote underneath her daughter’s words, I hope and pray this is the worst day of your life.

If those kinds of disappointments are the biggest problems we face in life, it would be a very blessed life.  I guess it would be a blessed life, but perhaps we are not blessed when we escape suffering, because suffering is one of life’s greatest classrooms and teach us some of life’s most important lessons and can teach us compassion and builds within us a strength of faith that can come to us in no other way. 

The question, then, is not whether or not we will face difficulty, or how much difficulty we will face, but what will we do with that difficulty?  How will we respond to that difficulty?  Will that difficulty break us, or will it strengthen us?

Job doesn’t provide us with a list of answers as to how we should respond to our sufferings in life.  In one way, the book of Job reminds me of a college classmate of mine who actually wrote in his exam book one day I know I haven’t written the answer to the question but you have to trust that I do know the answer – I really do!  That didn’t work for him, but the book of Job gives that kind of answer.  It’s not a specific answer to every difficult situation in life and there is no list offered of what you should do when you face difficulty in life.  But Job still gives an answer, and it’s an answer that doesn’t, on the surface sound like an answer – though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.

What drives people to continue to have faith in the midst of profound and deep suffering?  And why do some walk away from faith in the midst of their suffering?  Biblical character after Biblical character demonstrates their willingness to hold onto faith in spite of the sufferings they encounter; in fact, they find that suffering deepens their faith. 

Listen to Paul in II Corinthians 11:23-28 – I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 

What would compel Paul to continue in the face of such incredibly difficult circumstances?  Faith. Some of the greatest beauty comes out of our suffering.

Christian Wiman has written a fascinating book titled My Bright Abyss:  Meditation of A Modern Believer.  I like the way he puts those two words together – Bright Abyss.  He was 39 years old, married less than a year, when he received a diagnosis of incurable cancer.  One of the very interesting comments he makes is that one speaks differently when standing on a cliff.  His illness completely transformed his life, and the major transformation was that it brought life to what he calls a long, dormant faith.  Because of that gift – the resurrection of faith in his life – would he wish he had not faced such a difficult struggle?

Jim Carrey starred in the movie The Truman Show.  The movie has a fascinating concept, where Jim Carrey plays the character of Truman, a man who is the subject of a reality TV show, although he does not know that his entire life has been the subject of the show or that the idyllic community in which he lives is actually the set of a TV show.  He life is one of predictable routine and free from troubles.  In spite of his good life and in spite of living in such a beautiful community, Truman senses there is more to life and to the world than what he knows.  He finally decides he needs to strike out into the larger world, although the creator of the TV show knows this would be a disaster for the program.  As Truman boards a small sailboat and sets off for the mainland, the creator of the show orders his staff to create a storm, in the hopes it will cause Truman to turn back.  Truman, however, keeps going, although he almost drowns when his boat capsizes.  Eventually, Truman runs into the end of the set, and at that point the show’s creator speaks to Truman from high up in the control room.  He entreats Truman not to leave, saying that in my world you have nothing to fear.  And that is true.  Truman could stay in his beautiful, fear-free world, but he chooses to leave and enter into the real world, where there is much sadness, heartache, and suffering.  Why would anyone leave such a setting?  Why not stay where life exists in a protective bubble?

Job asks us a question, and it is the question of whether or not we want to live in a protective bubble or in the real world.  It would be wonderful, at least on the surface, to live in an idyllic world like Truman’s, but wouldn’t we miss much of the richness of life if we did?  The great irony of life is that without our struggles and difficulties we would not know so much of the beauty of life.  If we never suffer loss we would not know the beauty of a friend who sits and mourns our loss with us.  If we never know disappointment in life we never know the joy of the sweet and good moments of life.  And on and on we could go, in terms of other examples.

Yes, life is difficult, and there is much sadness and struggle that we experience.  But in the face of all that comes our way, may we, like Job, pass the test of faith.

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