This morning we are talking about “Dealing with Difficulty.” This is one of those Sundays when all the lessons raise this question or attempt an answer.
We begin with the oracle of the prophet Habakkuk. After looking full upon the disaster that was to come upon his nation and its people the prophet cried out saying:
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
It is tempting to put ourselves in one place and Habakkuk and his troubles in another. For some, this will work, for a time; but as Saul’s Bellow reminds us, “You don’t know what is coming if you think you can get (through life) with laughing and eating peach pie.”
The laughter eventually ceases. The peach pie eventually runs out. Into every life a little rain must fall, not as a blessing on a parched land as promised by Moses, but as disruption. Rain makes mud, and the journey gets harder in the mud, and it is a lot easier to slip and fall and harder to get up.
It is my contention that the best time to repair the roof is before it rains. The best time to prepare for hard times is when times are easier. As Joseph said to Pharoah, “King, make good use of the seven fat years—for the lean years are coming.” Or, as the Epistle of 1st Peter warns us:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you.
The epistle goes on to point out that Christians in every time and every place have had to deal with difficulties and disasters of their own, so why should it be different with us? Elsewhere the same author writes:
Christ suffered in the flesh; arm yourselves with the same thought.
If it happened to Jesus in the flesh, why shouldn’t it happen to us? Scott Peck might have had this text in mind when he wrote: “Life is hard, but the moment we know that life is hard, life ceases to be as hard because we know that life is hard?”
Okay, then, we know that trouble is coming, but when trouble comes what should we do?
The scripture suggests at least the following.
First, we must face the difficulty. If we ignore it, it will not go away on its own. Robert Schuller used to say, “When faced with difficulty, a mountain of a problem, I will climb over, find a way around, tunnel underneath, or stay right where I am and turn that mountain of a problem to a goldmine of opportunity.” Shuler reminds us that adversity (as well as leisure) is the mother of invention. The pandemic gave us adversity and leisure, and we made good use of them. We learned to Zoom—and our numbers stayed high; we hosted some creative services; we renewed our fellowship hall. We even went way out on a limb of faith and called an associate pastor. Now we must follow through.
Second, we must wait patiently for God’s help. God’s solution does not always come to us right away. The question “How long?” occurs 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and 6 times in the New Testament. Habakkuk asked, “How Long?” So does the prophet of revelation. He identifies God as the Sovereign ruler of the universe and cries out, “How long before you judge those who dwell upon the earth and avenge our blood?”
Oswald Chambers, author of “My Utmost for His Highest,” said two things about waiting. 1). Chambers said we are not sure of the right thing to do, do nothing. Sometimes we try to force an answer that will not work. The people of Israel did this when they tired of waiting on Moses to come down the mountain from God and made for themselves a golden calf to which they prayed and offered sacrifices. 2) Chambers said that our waiting is never passive, but active. Waiting does not mean that we sit back twiddling our thumbs. Instead, we prayerfully and expectantly look to the experience of others who have faced similar situations. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And Abraham Lincoln said that “those who ignore history is doomed to repeat them.” And if I can quote Saul Bellow just once more. It was he who wrote that history, including our personal history:
“…is a regular warehouse of fine suggestions, and if we are not better it is not because we don’t have plenty of marvelous and true ideas to draw upon, but because our vanity weighs more than all of them.”
Third, we must keep our confidence in God high. Habakkuk told the people of Israel that “there is a vision” meaning God will guide us. Then he said, “Wait for it!” Meaning that the vision, God’s guidance, will come for us in God’s time, not in ours.
When God was ready, he gave Habakkuk the vision and told him to write it down on tablets of stone so plain that his words could be read by a running man. When I saw this, I was reminded of a billboard or a warning sign. You can’t post a novel on a billboard and expect people to read it as they pass. You can put a very effective warning on that same sign! Maybe Habakkuk posted a series of billboards, in sequence, like the old Burma Shave Signs, but without the rhyme. He wrote a series of warnings: “Wine is treacherous,” he wrote. “The spirit of the proud is not right within them,” he wrote. “The arrogant person shall not abide,” he wrote. God’s people need to be alert, and we need to sit with humility at the feet of the facts. Habakkuk dished out warnings. Then he served up a little encouragement, too. He wrote, “The Righteous shall live by faith.” Not faith in themselves—but faith in God. We must keep our confidence high.
There is a fourth thing we can do while we are waiting on God to help us in the midst of our difficulties, we can examine ourselves. When hard times come, it is easy to sit back and blame God, or fate, or the government, or our employer, or the system; but we bring the vast majority of our problems on ourselves. That is what David was getting at when he said:
3 When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand (O Lord) was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
David said it was only after the confessed his sin and quit trying to hide his failure that God forgave the guilt of his sin. The overwhelming experience of God’s grace and forgiveness gave David confidence in God’s ability to deliver him and anyone else from any difficulty. He wrote:
6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you (O Lord); at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
I will never forget sitting in my grandmother’s old green rocking chair down at Long Beach, waiting for a hurricane to hit the island. Everybody else was in bed. I volunteered to sit up with the radio should we be ordered to the shelter. I was reading scripture for comfort and I read the words of Psalm 32 for the first time. I fell asleep. By the time I woke up, the storm had passed us by, and struck further up the coast. It was not a big storm, and there was no loss of life. We felt blessed. We could say with David.
7 You are a hiding place for us, O Lord; you preserve us from trouble; you surround us with glad cries of deliverance. Selah.
I am not sure exactly what “Selah” means, but each time I see it in the Psalms, I simply substitute, “Yahoo!”
There is a fifth thing to remember. God does not always help us out of our difficulties but through our difficulties. Paul saw this in the Church at Thessalonica. Members of the congregation suffered a lot of persecution from non-believers and they suffered many afflictions of every kind at the hand of life itself—sickness and what we might call “bad luck.” In other words, they were short on laughter and peach pie; but they did not shrivel up and quit. Paul says that they grew in faith, and they grew in their love for one another, so much so that Paul not only constantly remembered them in prayer and thanked God for them, but bragged about them, too, saying that their suffering glorified the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If there was help for Christians in Thessalonica—there must be help for Christians in Winston-Salem, too. We can be sure of that, because “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,” and sometimes, we all feel, at least a little lost, maybe not in an eternal sense, but certainly in a directional, situational sense. Is that not so?
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.