Surviving the Setbacks and Storms
Today we’re continuing our series on Seven Simple Truths about Life. And really these are truths that we know already but often fail to live by. We often fail to remember them.
In some ways like the game rules for The Game of Life. If we know the aim of The Game of Life and you remember and play by the rules, it’s fun to play. But if you don’t understand the objective of the game and you don’t remember the rules or you don’t play by the rules, it’s just not any fun. You’ll lose every time. You’re just frustrated by it.
And that’s how it is about these simple truths of life. They all derive from the Scriptures. For many of us, they are truths we know, yet so frequently we fail to follow them. Today, we will focus on one particular simple truth about life. And actually it has 2 dimensions.
The first dimension of this truth about life I want you to remember this morning is that life is filled with times of suffering. Life is hard sometimes. And we’re all going to face suffering. We’re all going to face things that are no fun. There are times when life is hard; it’s difficult; it’s frustrating and painful. That’s life.
But the corollary to that – that is the simple truth I really want you to remember- is that we can overcome, we can survive life’s setbacks and storms.
It’s just like this board Game of Life we played when we were kids. You know how this works. Of course you spin the dial and then you move the playing pieces. And you remember there’s the little cars that take you around and all kinds of places to visit and see on the playing board.
But one of the things I noticed as I was looking closely at this board was how many of these things are rather unpleasant. I mean there are on this board at least 10 or 12 places where you get sued by other people. You pay out $100,000 in this particular one. You’re going to get sick with some kind of sickness, the Mooshoo Flu or something else. On this board, you have your in-laws visit once in a while. And look at this one: taxes due. They’re all over this board – things that don’t sound very fun – tragedies that happen, difficulties and adversity. And the reason why they’re on the Game of Life board is because that’s how the game of life works.
Now when we look at this and we look at our own lives we recognize we are going to experience hardship in life. There are times when your heart is going to get broken. There are going to be times when you get sick, maybe really sick – I hope not. You’re going to lose a friend, somewhere along the way. You may lose a job – get fired or maybe laid off. You might lose money in the stock market somewhere along the way. And someday you will have to say good bye to your friends, parents, spouse, or they’ll say good bye to you.
What makes life bearable is the fact that for every one of those spaces on the playing board there are 5 others that are really kind of fun. There are the moments where you see the majesty of creation or the beautiful sunrise or sunset. Or falling in love for the first time. There are friendships that are so rich and there are experiences that you just can’t believe. Moments where life is an adventure and it’s just exhilarating. Sometimes you just feel this wonderful peace about life, that peaceful easy feeling. And you experience all of those before you hit the next bump in the road. Life is made up of all of these things.
Today I want to focus our attention on 4 foundations or strategies for surviving the challenges we face in life. And these 4 strategies again are things that you already know but maybe have forgotten. They’re drawn not only from the scriptures but also from the life experiences from real people who have survived the setbacks and the storms.
Now first I invite you to take out your sermon handout. I believe that there will be some things you may want to remember because they will be helpful to you later on. There you will also find an outline of the message as well as our memory verse for the week there at the top. Then there are some additional scriptures and questions for your own reflection and to serve as the basis of our sermon talkback group on Wednesday evening.
Now what I want you to remember right now, first of all is just the fact that these setbacks and storms they come – this is the first foundation for surviving them is just knowing that they’re going to be out there. Not Pollyanna – graduate from high school and my whole life is going to be great. You know up front there are moments that are going to be hard AND that you can overcome.
But I want you to know more than that. You need an adequate understanding of how life works, about how God intersects with the setbacks and the storms of life. Because I don’t think sometimes we’re very clear about that as Christians.
You see there is sort of a folk theology that most of us adopt. And we sort of live with it for a while until things get difficult and suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. And the folk theology goes something like this: “When you face the bumps in the road, everything happens for a reason.” And, “It must be the will of God.” Gosh, that just sounds so true.
But let’s think about this for a moment because there are times where it becomes less than helpful.
So if everything happens for a reason, and the will of God is basically everything that happens, then somehow everything that happened was intended to happen by God. God wished for it to happen. It wouldn’t have happened if God didn’t intend for it to happen. So, everything that happens must be happening for some reason that God has appointed.
And that works OK when everything is going well in life. Like this past Monday night if you were an Ohio State football fan. It becomes really clear: God must be a Buckeye fan. I mean how else can you explain the fact that Ohio State with a quarterback who had only played 3 games in his entire college carrier could lead his team to such an improbable and impressive win over the mighty Oregon Ducks? That never should have happened! Wow! God loved the Buckeyes and God foreordained that they should win the game. And that’s exciting and exhilarating. And that theology works there. But the problem is it cuts another way. If you happen to be from Oregon it might feel a bit different.
Friday afternoon I was feeling like I was coming down with a cold. My nose was running, I was sneezing, my throat was getting scratchy, and I’m sitting there and I’m thinking – well what am I thinking? If I have this theology I’m thinking, “There’s a reason for this. What did I do? Why is God punishing me with a cold right now, right before the weekend? Doesn’t he know that I have to preach 3 times on Sunday?” And it’s like I’m trying to fight through it and I can’t. And maybe I don’t get up and take cold medicine because maybe God wants me to be sick – it was His will that I be sick, so why should I take medicine because that would really cancel out what God was trying to do for me, right?” Or maybe He’s trying to teach me a lesson about being sick and He thinks that somehow that’s going to mature me spiritually?
Well it’s possible I suppose. But you see how confusing it gets when you just can’t figure out what to do because; I mean God’s doing everything, right?
And then when you think about the game – let me just ask you this question. Does God rig the game? Did he rig the Ohio State-Oregon game? I mean Oregon never had a chance. It didn’t matter how skilled the players were, or the coaches decisions, because God had already decided every single part of that game. It really wasn’t a game; it was just going through the motions, right?
Or if you’re going to play The Game of Life with me, would you want to play with me if I could control the spinner and you didn’t know it? I’m going to make sure it lands exactly where I want it to land every time and you’re going to land on exactly all of the right places so I get to sue you and collect $100,000. And I get the pay raise and you get sick.
And so we play the game and by the end I’ve cleaned house and you’ve lost totally, and I’ve controlled the whole thing. Do you want to play a game like that? That’s no fun. We become puppets and God becomes the Wizard of Oz who stands behind the curtain and he pushes the buttons and pulls the levers.
And you may say, “Hey that’s how I see it. God’s controlling everything.”
For me where that really brakes down is in dealing with people in the midst of really really awful tragedies as your pastor and as a pastor of three other congregations.
And so you’re in the hospital with a family who just lost they’re 2 year old child. You’re visiting with someone who was just raped. You’re counseling with somebody who was sexually abused by their step-father. God put them up to that? Is it God’s will that this person be raped? Or this child die?
And there comes a moment when you say, “This just doesn’t work.” Because suddenly God becomes a monster in what God is doing. And people can’t turn to God for comfort and help because they’re just so angry at a God who does things like this.
The scriptures tell us that God is just and loving, merciful and kind and whatever happens in our world that God does is going to be consistent with those things. The nature of God is love. And so whatever we see and we attribute to God better be loving, just, kind, and merciful. And so for me this theology, its known as theistic determinism, just simply doesn’t work.
So when I begin to look at that then we begin to ask the question, “If God isn’t doing that then what does God do?” And when we divorce God from doing the evil things that bring pain in our lives and we begin to recognize that what God is, is God watches over everything that is happening here and He’s given us freedom to make choices – in fact isn’t that the major premise of the entire Bible? God put the tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden and says, “Don’t eat from it, but you still have a choice. You can if you choose to, but I don’t want you to because it will bring pain. And they eat anyway.
And isn’t the overarching story of the Bible the story of human beings choosing not to do what God wants us to do. And so He has to send Moses and the law. And then He sends the prophets. And then Jesus comes to be our Savior and to save us from our own sin; sin that God didn’t want us to commit, but we chose to commit anyway. And God’s constantly cleaning up after us and redeeming all the mess that we’ve made. I mean that’s what God does.
And He walks with us through the pain.
I love the Psalms because the psalms because they capture the heart of people. They are real and authentic expressions of real people deeply held and powerfully expressed in the midst of life’s challenges and circumstances. And in these we find that the psalmist sometimes blames God for things. Sometimes they don’t blame God for things. But they always believe that what God really is is their refuge and strength. Not the one who inflicts pain upon them.
So King David says this in Psalm 71: “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.”
This is the first foundation for surviving the storms and the setbacks of life – recognizing that God doesn’t inflict pain, He doesn’t give His children tumors; cancers. He doesn’t put people up to raping other people, and He doesn’t force you to lose your job. But He is for us a refuge and a rock, our strong tower, a mighty fortress. And then we turn to Him. That is the first foundation.
Now the second foundation, the second strategy is to turn to God and to count on Him to help us and see us through. But you have to ask this question: “But how does God do this? How does God see us through difficulties and adversity in life?”
And here I want to remind you that God’s primary means for working in the world is not the supernatural miracle in which He comes in and violates all the laws of nature that He Himself established in order to just rescue us. Yes, sometimes He does that and we do see miracles. But the primary means that God works in this world is through people. As Christians we are His hands and we are His feet and we are His voice and when God does something in the world most often He uses His people. And so we are responsible for helping one another. So you must have a sufficient network of support.
Paul says it this way in Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” When God wants to help us through the tough times He sends people our way. And what we need in those times is a sufficient network of support. We need people who will come alongside us and help us and sometimes carry us when we can’t manage it alone.
I want to ask you this question: where do you go to find your network of support? Who are the people at 2 in the morning when the wheels come off your life you’re going to call and you know that they aren’t going to be upset that you called and in a moment they’re going to be at your house to carry you? Who are the people when you are sick who come along behind you and clean up the mess? Who mow your yard when you can’t get out to mow it? The people who are going to be there not only at the visitation and the funeral but a week later and a month later and a year later, still carrying you through?
I learned a beautiful term for this from a workshop on congregational care at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, they call these people stretcher bearers. Who are your stretcher bearers?
There’s a story in Mark 2 that I really love. And it captures this idea of what I mean by stretcher bearers and what they look like. You know the story.
Jesus is teaching in a house. Four men show up carrying their paralyzed friend on a stretcher. They are going to carry him to Jesus. They are so determined that when they see that because of the crowd there’s no way they’re going to get inside to Jesus they come up with plan B. And plan B is they take their friend up a flight of stairs, tear a hole in the roof and lower their friend on his stretcher through the hole in the roof in the middle of the crowd all the way down right in front of Jesus. I picture Jesus smiling. He’s got to be going, “Wow! How cool is that? To have friends like this?” Stretcher bears who were willing to do whatever it takes to help their friend in his time of need. And then the scripture says, when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take up your mat and walk”. And the man picked up his mat picked up his mat, and walked out, praising God all the way home.
So let me ask you again who are your stretcher bearers? Who are the people who are going to carry you up onto the roof and tear the roof off and lower you down by a rope and by whose faith you’re going to make it through the storm?
And here’s perhaps the more important question: Whose stretcher bearer are you? Because here’s how it works. You live a narcissistic life where you’re self-absorbed and it’s really all about you all of your life, you’re going to get to the storms and you’re going to find that you don’t have a single stretcher bearer. Because nobody wants to come and to sacrifice and bear the stretcher of somebody who hasn’t really given a care about anybody else.
Who are your stretcher bearers? Whose stretcher bearer are you?
Well that leads us to a third foundation for successfully navigating through the storms and coming out the other side. And that is a healthy focus, outlook or perspective on adversity or in the midst of adversity. This is your mindset and what you look at when you’re in the midst of adversity.
And here I’m going to take you on a little of a side track and I’d like to mention 4 things about your outlook on adversity that are really important. And I’ve seen these from people in this congregation. You look at things this way and somehow it works better through the hard times. Let’s talk about those for a moment.
The first thing is to look to what brings you joy, and to pursue those things. Some people when they walk through the storms all they do is focus on the storm. “Look how scary it is. This is impossible. I’ll never make it through this thing” – and that’s what it feels like at times. But there are other people that walk through the storms and they acknowledge the storm. And they say, “You know what I’m scared to death.” But as they keep walking through that storm they begin to say, “I’m not going to be a victim of the storm. I’m going to keep doing the things that bring me joy even in the midst of the storm.”
Now when you’re walking through a really hard thing like the loss of a loved one, you’re not going to look at pursuing the things that bring you joy then. But instead at those moments what you’re going to do is you’re going to focus on what brought you joy about that person.
So when I sit down with families and we plan a funeral I say, “Tell me about you loved one.” And they start telling me stories, funny stories, and pretty soon there’s a laughter that’s going on in that room. And suddenly there is a joy because these people are not focusing on the death of their loved one, but on the life of their loved one.
But for those of us that are going through more long term adversity and storms and setbacks – part of this is just saying, “I’m going to acknowledge the difficult things in my life but I’m also going to choose to still live. I’m going to find the things to focus on that bring me joy and I’m going to pursue those.”
Our outlook matters. Now it’s not just focusing on living as much as we can and as long as we can and focusing on the joy, but we must also look for the blessings and give thanks for them. That’s the second attitude and practice of those who survive the storms.
This week I was reading an article that was published in American Journal for Psychology and it was a study focused on positive psychology. They conducted a study of 400 people over 6 months just to see if there was some of things that would work to help people in difficult circumstances have a healthier overall mental outlook. And they had placebo activities that they knew wouldn’t. And one of the activities that they found actually had a significant impact on the mental wellness of the people they were studying. What they found was that if people would take a piece of paper – this sounds very trite, but I’m telling you the psychologists tell us it worked. Take a piece of paper and at the end of the day write down three things you’re thankful for from that day and why you were thankful for them.
And they said at the end of 7 days there really was hardly any noticeable difference between the control group and the people who were doing this. But at the end of a month there was a noticeable difference. And at the end of 6 months there was a significantly reduced number of people who were struggling with depression. And a significantly higher number of people who were experiencing mental wellness and happiness. People who were giving thanks.
The apostle Paul of course gives us this advice. He says, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
And then our scripture memory verse for the day from Philippians. He’s telling us how we can have the peace that surpasses all understanding. And he tells us to lay our burdens before God. But he also tells us to do that with thanksgiving. Let’s read that verse together:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6
It’s not enough just to pray to God and tell him what you need done. It’s with thanksgiving that you begin to find the peace that passes understanding.
And every time I think about this I can’t help think of a man who was a member of my church years ago. His name was David. He was diagnosed with horrible disease that destroyed his liver. All of these cysts would grow and after some time they made it necessary for him to have a liver transplant. He lived in terrible pain. Constant pain.
And I went to see him one day near the end of his life it was in the fall of the year and I walked in the door and I said, “David, how are you doing?” And he said, “Terrific!” I said, “Come on David, really its ok. You can tell me. How are you?” He said, “Terrific, really!” “How are you terrific. I know you are in constant pain, and it hurts when you move.”
And he said, “I’ve got to tell you Randy, my brother came by and he was able to get me out to the car. And he took me for a drive. And you know what we did all morning? We just looked at the changing colors of the leaves of the trees. It was awesome! I’m terrific!”
He was able to give thanks. A guy with a failing liver, in constant pain, but he chose to focus on the things he could be grateful for.
And you know this is how it works. You focus on the storms and you’re going to feel absolutely overwhelmed; crushed by it. But you focus on the blessings and you find joy.
This is true in every part of life. You’re married? If you’re going to focus on everything you don’t like about your spouse, you’re going to be miserable; your marriage will never survive. But you choose to find three good things about your spouse every day, try even just 2 and write them down, and I guarantee you over 6 months you’re going to find at the end of 6 months you’ll have a healthier marriage if you’ve been looking for the blessings instead of the bummers.
That leads us to points 3 and 4. And I want to combine them together. And that is that people who are successful in navigating the storms and surviving the setbacks look at the trials as opportunities to grow. That’s number 3. opportunities to make a difference.
I want to combine these two. And I want to quickly remind you of the catholic idea of redemptive suffering. And in this, the idea is that no suffering is ever wasted with God. It’s not that God brings the suffering – we’ve talked about that. But when suffering happens, which it’s going to happen in life, what we say to God is, “God, please take this suffering and do something good with it, first in me. Use this painful experience in my life to develop perseverance, to develop faith and compassion and care for other people. Help me be more loving as a result. And God, somehow use this to make me the person you want me to be.”
I guarantee you God can use the painful things in your life to perfect you and to shape you. Those are the most powerful moments for God to work in your life. If you’re willing to say, “God it hurts but I’m going to invite you to use this somehow to make me the man or the woman you want me to be.”
But we move beyond that to asking God to do this: “God is there some way in the middle of this painful time that you can use this for your glory? Can you do something good? Can you use me now to make a difference in the lives of other people?”
Paul wrote a letter, the letter to the church at Philippi. He wrote it from a prison cell in Rome. And he’s waiting to find out if he’ll be executed or not. So that’s the context. And he writes this 4 chapter epistle, it’s known as the epistle of joy. Because in it he is joyful and he encourages them to rejoice and to be joyful always.
And you wonder, “Well how could he do that?” And one of the things he teaches us in there is that he has this idea that his suffering is an opportunity for God to work. Listen to what he says:
“I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14)
He’s saying, “How else could I have ever preached to these prison guards if I hadn’t been put in prison here? How cool is that? I would have never met these guys. And you know what? They’re all coming to know about Jesus Christ because I’m here in prison with them.”
You see what he’s doing? It’s not, “Woe is me. Why am I in prison? I tried to do what Jesus wanted, and look here I am.” No it’s, “Wow, in this there is an opportunity for God to use me?”
You say, “But that’s Paul, you know. Ordinary people don’t do that.”
Some of you may remember Charlotte Irion. Char was a member of our church who passed away back in 2007. Char and her husband Bud moved down here to Sterling from Vermont around the same time I did in 2004. It wasn’t an easy transition for them, giving up their home and much of their independence. They soon began coming to church and very quickly, especially Char became beloved by everyone here she met. The years that I knew Char were not been easy years for her. During that first year she was dealing with Bud’s illness and decline. Again I watched as she handled that situation with such grace, with a tenderness and concern that touched me deeply. Then soon Bud’s death she battled the rapid decline in her eyesight, terrible pain from a fall that left her with multiple fractures in her back, and also serious heart issues. And yet each time I would see her and talk to her she had that wonderful smile on her face and a kind and loving word on her lips. Never was there a complaint or negative word. You would never know how serious these issues were from just talking to her.
After Bud’s death, she could have given up, and yet she continued to live her life to it’s fullest. She was here in the worship services every Sunday she was able, sitting right there in that third row.
But there was more than that. She would often call me and out of concern and compassion for her friends and neighbors at Sommerset and ask me to pray for someone or even to visit them. She invited her friends to join her for services and was single-handedly responsible for bringing numerous new folks into our church family. She even assumed the duty of working with our men’s group to arrange for transportation.
She said, “I’m here so what can I do for God in this place?” I tell you it was amazing to watch. Do you think that made a difference in how she felt as she suffered through all of the setbacks and adversity? To feel like she still had a mission from God to fulfill through her. And for her suffering to be redeemed.
And this is what’s interesting in the Bible is that God always redeems the suffering. And the greatest example of that is of course Jesus Christ Himself who was crucified because there were people who were jealous and angry and upset and petty and small-minded. And He was crucified. But hanging there on the cross Jesus himself recognizes, “This is a moment for God to work.” He cries out words that we remember 2000 years later, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
And His death on the cross becomes the instrument of God’s redemption of the world.
I tell you God works most powerfully and profoundly in human beings in the midst of suffering, not that He inflicts but that He redeems.
That leads us to our last foundation. People who successfully survive the setbacks and the storms possess a deep faith that anchors them and offers hope.
It’s interesting; Paul captures this in 2 Corinthians 4, a passage that I have often read to people in the midst of suffering and at funeral services. Listen to his words and where he finds strength.
He says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2Cor. 4:8- 9; 16-18)
Many of you will remember Andi Zentz. Andi passed away in May of 2011 after a very courageous battle with cancer. Andi’s life was all too brief, 44 years. Throughout her days, life dealt her some pretty tough blows and challenges. She was a single mother trying to raise her family on her own. She was a survivor of violence. And worst of all was the diagnosis that eventually claimed her life.
Undoubtedly she had her questions. She had her times of wondering why. And yet her faith was strong! Those questions and fears gave way to a faith that gave her a deep and abiding peace and assurance. She could have spent her life complaining but instead she chose to keep climbing the mountains that were placed before her. She understood that life had a purpose even if she didn’t understand what that purpose was. And because of her attitude, because of her faith, because she was a believer in Jesus, she not only climbed those mountains . . . but I think she saw things and understood things that those of us who never face the mountains can never appreciate.
She knew God didn’t give her cancer. God doesn’t do to his children what we wouldn’t do to our children.
We entrusted their lives to the Shepherd of our souls who promises to never leave us or forsake us. And who says, “Yay though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me.” We say that to Him. He promises to be with us there.
There’s one last thing I want to share with you. I want to leave you with this picture in your mind. When Ryan was small, we lived in the little town of Wakefield. Our parsonage was this beautiful big old home with high ceilings and hardwood floors. His bedroom was on one end of the house and ours was on the other. And when the storms would come, Ryan in particular, there’d be the rains and the lightening and the thunder and it would just sort of echo through that big old house. And the rest of us would just be sleeping through it. And Ryan would be awake and he’d be scared.
And after a particularly loud clap of thunder I’d hear him running down the hall way and he’d run in our room and he’d come over and he’d shake me and say, “Daddy are you awake?” “I am now. What do you need?”
“Daddy, did you hear the thunder and the lightening. I’m scared daddy!”
So I’d pick him up and lay him in the bed beside us in the bed. I’d stroke his head and hold his hand. I’d say, “You don’t have to be afraid, buddy. Daddy’s right here. I’m right here next to you.” And the amazing thing is the lightning and thunder would continue as loud and as bright as it had been, but he’d go right to sleep. Because he knew his daddy was right there by his side and he would let him go.
And that’s the final strategy. It’s to simply trust that your Heavenly Father knows you and loves you more than you can imagine and believe. He doesn’t fix everything like we wish he would. He just says, “I’m going to walk with you and I will not let you go.”
So there it is: God doesn’t do bad things to His children. We trust Him and we turn to Him as our rock and refuge. We look for and invest in people to surround us and support us – stretcher bearers, because God uses people to care for one another. We have an outlook on our suffering that says, “God do something God with this, and help me to count my blessings and savor the joy that I have each day. And finally we rest in His arms knowing that our Father loves us more than we can imagine or believe.
That is how Christians survive the setbacks and the storms of life.
Let us pray:
I’m guessing that there are some of you here; you’re going through some really tough times right now. And for you it may be important, maybe you’ve never done this before, just to say, “Jesus I trust you with my life. Father, I trust you with my life. Hold me and don’t let me go. And bring something good from this and help me to give thanks in the midst of it. And use this, O God. Don’t let me go. “
I’d like to invite you if you’re here and you’ve never trusted in Christ, just to say that prayer. I’ll lead you in it. Let me just pray a line and you can pray after me.
“Father, I trust you with my life. Don’t let me go. Take the suffering that I face and use it for good. Use it to strengthen me and make me the person you want me to be. Help me to see the opportunities in the midst of it. Use me, O God. Help me to be someone else’s stretcher bearer, Lord. And help me let others bear my burdens. O God I trust you with my life. I love you. Grant me your peace and never let me go. In your holy name. Amen.