When people we know and care about are going through a hard time, and they often are, we offer encouragement saying, “hold on” or “hang in there.” I have said these things to people myself. What I think we mean is what I just said. We mean it is “a hard time.” Not a “hard always.” We mean that we know they are “going through” it – they will eventually get through and come out the other side. We mean that the suffering is temporary and if they can patiently endure it, if they can put their heads down and “hold fast,” the pain will abate, the storm will finally pass and they will survive. As the old-time preacher used to say, “Like it says in the Bible, ‘And it came to pass.’ It don’t say ‘it came to stay,’ it says, ‘it came to pass.’”
Truth be told, I feel pretty shallow when I say things like “hang in there” – I feel like they don’t really offer much help at all. And I suppose they really don’t. Honestly, there is really very little we can actually do for those who suffer, and there is very little others can do for us. In times of emotional or spiritual pain, in the times of dark discouragement, in times of doubt and even despair – there is sometimes nothing that can be done. Only the passage of some time dulls the pain – a little. Sometimes, the only way to help is to come alongside, to be with somebody as they suffer – just to care.
But the fact is that there are some things that we can’t get over. There are some things we can’t go through. We go into some storms and don’t ever come out – they become a permanent part of our world. We sustain some wounds that never fully heal – we don’t get past them in this life… we live with them. We adjust, we adapt, we carry on, but we carry on as somehow different people than we were before. Some wounds are less serious than others. Sometimes we can adapt, adjust and carry on.
Sometimes that’s the best we can do, and it’s usually good enough. But what about the bigger disasters? What about the illness that we won’t get over? What about the wounds to the soul that won’t get better – no matter how much time passes. What about when we are simply overwhelmed and can’t “hold on” or “hang in there.” What about when we reach the end of our rope and what about when we are just played out and what about when we just don’t have anymore left in us?
I’m sure some will say, “Well you can’t stop.” “Quitting is not an option.” “Never give up!” “Never surrender!” Okay, I’m good with that, as far as philosophies of life go. I basically agree that you have to do as much as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can. But all of that is qualified with the “as you can.” I think that there sometimes comes a time when you just can’t anymore. Sometimes will-power is not sufficient. Sometimes inner strength fails. Sometimes when sheer determination just won’t get it done. Sometimes when our best is just not good enough. Sometimes our faith, and hope, and even love just runs out. What then?
Well, my friends, that is what the gospel is all about. That is what Jesus is all about. That is what God is all about. Here is what it is. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We know what it means when something is “wanting,” don’t we. We speakers of “American” don’t use the term that way much anymore. When we say “want,” we mean what the Brits mean when they say “fancy.” “Want another piece of cake?” “Fancy a stroll in the park?” “I’ll pick you up after the game if you want… If you fancy… If you like.” We mean something like “desire.” But the idea behind the word “want” goes in a little different direction. “Want” means the “lack of something.” It means the absence of what is essential, necessary, or required. “I read over her qualifications and found them wanting.” “If you move in with me you’ll want for nothing.”
So when the poet says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” he means that for those in the care of the Lord, what is essential or necessary will never be lacking. And what is necessary is not so much increased strength, or even faith – or even confidence in God. What is necessary has nothing to do with me – or the state of my soul – or how I am thinking of feeling. Wheat is necessary is not in me at all. What is necessary is the unconditional reality that God will not let me go – even in the hardest possible times. That means that no matter what, God’s strength will hang onto me. Even if my strength fails and I can no longer “hang in there.”. Even if I run out of faith or hope – or even love for God. Even if I am overwhelmed and let go – especially if I let go, God will hold onto me. Nobody – and I include myself in that nobody – can snatch me out of God’s hand. God’s grip is too tight, God’s hold is too fast, God’s hand is too strong. This is what Paul was thinking about in Romans 8 when he wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I’ve been doing the preaching thing for a lot of years now – I calculated the other day that I have preached somewhere around 3000 sermons – I used to preach 3 or 4 times a week. At about 30 or 40 minutes each (I used to preach a lot longer than I do now –if you can believe it) that comes to – well it’s a lot of talking about God. Anyway, I’ve been talking about God for a long time and I’m pretty much at the point where I can be pretty self-disclosing without worrying too much about what people will think. So I can tell you that over the years, there have been a few times when I have pretty much given up on God. I have seen people suffering in ways that ought not to be. I have prayed and felt like there was an iron dome over my head – my prayers just went up and bounced off back down to me. Nobody listening – or at least nobody answering. I have experienced so-called Christians using their religion to hate and bash and kill other people – even other Christians! I have watched bad guys win and good guys lose – way too often. And here’s where I’ll be honest… there have been a few times when I’ve said, “enough!”. “God, if you are there, you are really making a mess of all this – or if we are the ones making the mess, you are not doing much to fix it.” I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my doubts – and a few times, well, I even turned my back and said, “Too much! That’s it, I’m done with you.” Yep. I’ve said that.
But here’s the thing… God has never said that to me. And you know what? I don’t believe God has ever said that to anybody. My reading of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us – and that word is “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Heb 13:5) In Jesus Christ, God’s Word to us is “I will be with you always, even to the end.”(Matt 28:20) In Jesus Christ God’s Word to us is “nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love given to us in Christ Jesus.” This doesn’t mean that we can just do whatever we want and it will be okay with God. Love doesn’t just let us get away with everything. In fact, I believe that the God of the Bible is a God of justice. And justice demands a full and honest accounting. Everything hidden will be revealed, every thought will be disclosed, we will answer for every word and every act done outside of love. But the light that shines in judgment is always the light of Love. It is the burning, searching, searing light that removes very trace of darkness – and heals, makes whole, and completes the process of creation. It is the light of love that makes us fit for eternal joy.
Here is the last word then. If we could save ourselves, if we could heal ourselves, if it depended upon us, then that would be the way of salvation – and Christianity would be like any other religion. The message would be “try harder,” “do better,” “work more,” and hope it’s good enough. But that is not the message. The message is that “what we could not do because of our weakness, our brokenness, our woundedness, that is exactly what God has done, and will never fail to do. We are held in God’s unfailing grasp of love. And no one – nothing will snatch us from God’s hand.