Stuck in the Middle…of…pain

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017

(Note: portions of material from the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero and its accompanying workbook of the same name was used in this sermon.  The reflection questions are from the workbook. That material is copyrighted by Pete and Geri Scazzero.)

Job 42:1-6

In this season of life, what is the greatest obstacle you face?

A young woman, recently married, fixed meat loaf for her husband one evening for dinner. As she prepared it, he noticed that she cut off both ends of the loaf and placed the remainder in the baking dish and threw the cut pieces into the trash.

He quietly asked her one evening after having the meat loaf, which he loved, for a third time, why she cut off the ends when the dish the meat loaf was baked in was large enough.

“I don’t know,” came the reply. “But is the way my mother made her meat loaf.”

Several months later, the couple had dinner with the wife’s family and meat loaf was on the menu. Her mother, as she had always done, cut both ends off and through the ends away. The action prompted the young woman to ask, “Why do you cut off the ends?”

“It’s the way I saw your grandmother do it and I figure that’s how meat loaf was prepared.”

Thanksgiving rolled around and while turkey was on the menu, so was grandma’s famous meat loaf. The young woman watched as her grandmother prepared the meat loaf and, just as she and her mother still did, grandma cut the ends off the meat loaf even though the glass pan was large enough for the entire loaf.

The young woman quickly moved to her grandmother’s side and asked, “Grandma, why do you cut off the ends of your meat loaf?”

Her grandmother laughed. “Oh, it is a habit that I have had for years even though the pan is big enough for the entire loaf. I often forget that I do it still.” I started doing it after your grandfather and I were married because the pan I used was too small for the size of the loaf I made. So I had to cut if off to make it fit.”

How many of us have done things like this? How many of us learned to do certain things a certain way in our younger days because that is what we saw demonstrated or were taught.

We learn a lot of interesting things as we grow up – from our families, friends, teachers, and life itself. And some of those things that we learn do not help us navigate life as we age and face tasks and situations that cause us problems. In fact, we find that they stress us and we have trouble coping with them and that nothing, including our faith seems to work and we respond in ways that frustrate us, cause us pain, makes us feel second class.

One of the things that I think about and pray about as the post-Easter season begins, is how do I as your pastor, help you live your faith in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit after Easter? I am vitally concerned that we are able to have a faith that helps us grow in our faith and trust in Christ and that includes dealing with attitudes, habits, and emotions which seem to take on a life of their own and cause us to wonder if we are truly Christian or not.

Here is what I mean…

We are like icebergs, most of the time people only see what is visible, above the surface. But just as there is more to the iceberg below the surface (something that the Titanic discovered over a century ago), there is more to us just below the surface.

There is far more going on within us, deep within us, than what people are aware of, and sometimes we are even aware of. But God is aware of what is going on and He cares about that part of us – the deep, deep part.

Jesus made that clear when He said in Matthew 15 verses 18 through 20:

the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; 

His words are to the disciples who are confused by the conversation Jesus has just had with the Pharisees about what defiles a person. They were focused on the externals specifically in this chapter about why they did not wash their hands before they ate. (It was a ritual the Pharisees performed before they ate.) Jesus was looking deeper.

This is about our character and who we are becoming not how much we do for God, our families, or anyone else.

Part of having a resurrection faith, then, that helps us to become the person the Lord wants us to become, must get into our emotions and attitudes and change how we deal with and respond to difficult times. It’s not just about being saved, and that is important, it also about becoming more and more like Christ as the years go by.

Part of the challenge with regard to what I call an emotionally healthy faith, is being able to see and accept that some of the ways we have learned to deal with conflict, with pain, with significant loss, with fear, rejection, resentments, and our powerlessness, to name just a few, as we grew up, does not work anymore.

We need to learn a new and better way to deal with these issues and we need to find a freedom in Christ in which our past no longer influences our present.

 

The purpose of this series is to offer each of us information and inspiration that will help us find a new freedom and hope in Christ so that we are better able to cope with life in a manner that brings us a deeper peace and joy and helps us to live as Christ would have us live. A focus question will be part of each of these messages for the purpose of reflection and I plan to include a suitable song that I think fits the theme of the message for that week.

Today, that question is:

In this season of life, what is the greatest obstacle you face?

I want each of us to take a moment and write out your answer to this question. I am not going to ask for any responses. This is between you and God so be very honest with yourself and with the Lord.

This obstacle or obstacles often come suddenly and we are stunned and speechless…sometimes hopeless. And we are thrown into a dark hole, disoriented, disorganized, and overwhelmed.

The fear, the panic, the anxiety, are overwhelming.

We try to fix the situation…and we can’t.

We seek answers from others…and they don’t satisfy us

We pray and pray and pray…and God seems silent.

And all the while, we consciously or subconsciously, return to coping habits that we have relied on before…and they don’t work.

We have hit a wall and we must learn how to deal with that wall, whatever it is, and with the help and power of the Holy Spirit, face the wall and overcome that wall, whatever it is with a new way of responding, one which helps us to live despite the fear, anxiety, frustration, and the like that brings us to a place of peace and confidence in the Lord.

And sometimes this wall comes not because of terrible tragedy (although we will visit with someone whose hitting the wall was because of a tragedy that led his friends to believe he had done something terribly wrong and deserved it). No, hitting this wall  comes because the Lord is refining us, He is maturing us. It is often a very difficult experience for reasons I will state in a few moments:

The man I speak of is Job and our text for this morning is Job 42:1-6

Then Job replied to the Lord:

” I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

The first three chapters of Job give us a peek behind the curtain of the heavenly realms. People have been fascinated for centuries by the dialogue and action in the opening chapters of Job where Satan and God have a conversation and God allows Satan to afflict Job up to a certain point.

The next 34 four chapters features three rounds of dialogue between Job and his closest friends who sit with him in his mourning and loss. They think that he has done something wrong to deserve this and Job denies that he has.

Finally after a six chapter lecture by the young Elihu, for the next five chapters God humbles Job, rebukes Job’s friends, and restores the fortune of Job.

Our text is part of God’s humbling of Job and soon after this passage we note at the end of this final chapter, God restores Job and because of Job’s prayer on their behalf, God does not punish Job’s friends.

In this text, we are given some reasons why Job hit a wall, a time of terrible pain, loss, and confusion and he faced God at its end, even though his wife says to him, as noted in chapter 2 and verse 9 “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” Job refuses to do what his wife says for him to do.

Instead he faces this dark night and eventually faces God directly,

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

What’s the issue here for Job?

His limits, His powerlessness.

 

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

Job is a great man, one of the greatest men of the Bible. But God forces him to face his limitations, his powerlessness. He hits the wall because God allows Him to face a trying and terrible situation:

Job 1:9 through 12

“…the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.  “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

I know that we believe that Satan loves to tempt us and make us sin. He’s good at that.

But there is an equally important truth about moments when life is bleak and we’ve hit a wall– God is refining us.

Satan tempts us…to fail.

God tests us…to grow.

There is a difference.

Pete Scazzero has written a helpful definition of the wall and here it is:

“The wall is God’s way of renewing and “purging our affections and passions” so that we might delight in his love and enter into a richer, fuller communion with him. God works to free us from unhealthy worldly attachments and idolatries. He wants to communicate his true sweetness and love to us. He long for us to know his true rest and peace.”

Scazzero also summarizes the words of John of the Cross regarding what John says must be dealt with during these difficult moments because those who are going through it need to be rid of some tendencies that keep them from having a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy faith:

Pride: ”people who have pride have a tendency to condemn others and become impatient with their faults. They are very selective in how someone can teach them.

Avarice (or greed): They are discontent with the spirituality (we might say faith) always trying to gain more knowledge instead of being humble in spirit.

Luxury: they are more grateful for God’s blessings than God himself.

Wrath: easily irritated and have little patience to wait on God

Spiritual gluttony: they resist the cross and choose pleasures like children. Dying to their plans and desires is something they do not want to do.

Spiritual envy: they feel unhappy when others do well spiritually. They are always comparing.

Sloth: They run from that which is hard. Their aim is spiritual sweetness and good feelings.

These are hard words to hear, are they not? And I have committed these sins more often that I care to admit. And the Lord has had to humble me, not to beat me up and make me feel worse, NOT to shame me, but to show me what I need to get rid of that keep from fully following the Lord and enjoying Him and not just what He gives me!

An emotionally healthy faith is a faith in which God, through the Holy Spirit, refines us and helps us move beyond a prideful faith and all of the emotional problems that come with it – jealousy, envy, pride and the like.

So what Pastor, what do I get out of it?

When we ‘hit the wall’ it can become an opportunity to say “What needs to change in me, Jesus?”:

We face, and surrender our ability to be easily offended…and judgmental. And we live free to love and care. That brings a peace that we really want to have.

We learn to live with mystery. I do not have to know all the answers. I do not have to be in control, telling God what to do. I let go and I seek to follow Jesus, with love and grace each day, trusting Him to take care of me and my needs.

We wait on the Lord with greater patience. How many of us have something we really want the Lord to do? Change the life of someone we love for example. How many of us are helping God do that and it seems to make it worse?

Being, or trying to be in control, is one of the most difficult places to be in. For it seems that harder we try to control, the worst things become. The more we seek to be right and say do “it” this way, the more people stop speaking to us, they avoid us, they may even tell us to get lost, or something else.

We need to stop trying to control and fix everything in sight because it is not doing us any good and it is and has created walls of resentment and isolation and made things worse. We need to stop it…now and let go and let God have it. We are miserable because we cannot fix life…and if were honest, we resent God more and more because He is not doing what we think He should do.

 We let go of what is unnecessary and hang on to very few things. Scazzero wrote, quoting Thomas Merton, “The critical issue on the journey with God is not “Am I happy?” but “Am I free? Am I growing in the freedom God gave me?”

This is called detachment and going through moments of dark nights or hitting the wall, we learn that detaching from, letting go of, things which hold us back from experiencing the freedom that God has for us is part of those moments.

I am about done for this morning with this message.

(Some of you are thinking, Thank you Jesus, I have heard/read enough!)

I ask us this morning, as one who has gone through these difficult moments, and I am going through them right now in this season of life:

Are you free, are you at peace with where you’re at in your life right now? Are you free are you at peace with your faith in Christ?

We are going to spend some time in reflection on two questions as we conclude:

What is one thing that God might want you to unlearn and give up?

What habit?

What hurt?

What hang-up?

What is robbing you of a greater peace with God?

Here is the second question

What treasures might there be in the darkness or difficulties in your own life today?

The Lord has not, has.NOT left you to flounder in your wall hitting state and place.

He has something wonderful for you to discover, or re-discover in the darkness and pain of your current situation.

What might that be?

Write those two questions down on a piece of paper, use an offering envelope if necessary and spend the final moments of this message, praying and reflecting on them as we listen to Francesca Battistelli sing about a critical aspect of dealing with these dark moments of the soul – honesty

If you are stuck in the middle of pain today, this season, there is good that is beyond it…God is present in it with you… turn to Him

Thanks be to God for His wonderful love and grace!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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