I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you [from us], so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!
—Galatians 4:12-20, NIV
Some Christians have a serious problem dealing with personal adversity. They feel that their misfortune serves as a penalty or a consequence of some as yet unidentified sin, of omission if not commission.
These Christians have not read today’s passage in Galatians, or have at least not taken it to heart! It was written by Paul, who warned those that stand to take heed lest they fall. These fictitious Christians, whom I describe today, stand in spiritual pride, and must take heed, because they will fall. Their noses are in the air, so they cannot see where they walk; they will stumble and fall:
- Those who think their spirituality grants them a magic exemption from disease.
They will take fewer precautions, see the doctor less often, and will suffer needless fright and distress from a bout with the winter flu. Or they will be devastated by the need for surgery: for now they not only have to cope with illness, they have to reexamine their heart as well. Therefore examine your heart now, and if illness comes, accept it in humility.
- Those who think that their spirituality grants them a magic exemption from bereavement.
They will soon discover that their friends and relatives are not immortal; and when one dies, the natural process of grieving will deal them a double blow. In addition to grief, they will experience guilt instead of grace. Therefore examine your heart now, and realize that in times of stress you will still experience human emotions; develop faith for those times when your vision fails.
- Those who think that their spirituality grants them a magic ability to balance their checkbook.
They will suffer doubly when unexpected repairs strap their budget. Those who think that by their works of tithing or their diligence at work they are saved from the financial tumult of our times may find themselves searching the want ads instead of the scriptures, in bitterness instead of in faith. Remember that our society is controlled by sinful men and not by God; therefore calamity may visit you even though you don’t deserve it. Don’t ask God for immunity, but rather for strength to bear whatever may come.
- Those who feel their spirituality guarantees a happy family life.
They might pride themselves on all the things they do not need to do and all the topics that they do not need to discuss. It is as if they do not lock their doors or close their windows; when their children are carried away by vices as if by thieves, when they find their spouses embittered against them, they have neither warning nor protection. Develop your reliance on God, not as a substitute for dealing with family problems, but as a source of confidence and prudence in doing so.
Why am I saying all this glum stuff? Look at today’s reading in Galatians. Paul says the only reason he stopped in Galatia to preach was because he was sick and couldn’t travel. Now I’m sure at the time it seemed like a major setback. Paul had an itinerary and a goal in mind, and apparently Galatia wasn’t on the agenda. He apparently evangelized key cities and relied on those converts to spread the Word to surrounding areas.
What would you have done in Paul’s place? What if you believed that you were an apostle, appointed by Jesus Christ Himself to spread the gospels to the gentiles throughout the world, what if you were half-way along an intricate itinerary designed to hit key cities on a careful schedule, when suddenly illness (of all things!) strikes you down in some town that wasn’t on your list? What if you had the problem of other Christian teachers following you on your journey, ‘correcting’ all the things you taught? What if you had a history of conflict with another apostle, as Paul did with Peter, an apostle who had followed the Lord from the beginning?
For most of us, the illness would pose a major problem. It might even have been the last straw! We would probably spend quite a long time indulging ourselves in self-examination and despair. We would question our apostleship. Did I really see the light on the road to Damascus? Was I really blind, or was it just an emotional crisis? Why am I plagued with the Judaizers, who follow me around to ‘correct’ the churches that I found? Could it be that God is telling me that I am wrong, that I need to stop and think things out, that the Judaizers are right after all? Could it be that God is telling me to stop traipsing around the Roman Empire and let the others do it? Why else would I be sick unless I sinned and God has abandoned me? And why is it that I’m the only intellectual who’s a Christian? Could I be missing something here? Maybe Christianity really is nothing more than a heresy, and I was wrong in being overcome with compassion for the heretics?
Well, if Paul had been a Prideful Christian, like many of us are, and if Paul had imagined that God had granted him a magic exemption from trouble, then he might have thought those thoughts. He did get autobiographical at times, so he probably would have shared them with us. However, if Paul had been a Prideful Christian, he wouldn’t have been a Christian long: look at all the misfortune that he suffered! He even gives us a catalog in 2 Corinthians 11! He was beaten, whipped, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, and had a recurring illness. He was rejected, persecuted, reviled, and subverted. If anyone has had more suffering and misfortune in their life than Paul had, I can’t imagine who it would be.
In all these things, Paul did not think of himself, but rather how his misfortune came to spread the gospel of Christ. In this case, I’m sure he would have seen his illness as the Holy Spirit’s last-minute correction of his itinerary, and his pitiful state as conducive to sympathy, which would make his hearers more open to the gospel.
So I have four pieces of advice for you:
- Be prepared for bad things.
- Do not allow spiritual pride to become an obstacle to prudent action.
- If misfortune disqualifies you as a Christian, then Paul isn’t so hot either.
- If misfortune makes you less a Christian, then it makes Paul and all the other apostles even less of a Christian than you are. If the apostles aren’t Christians, then there is no point in you even trying.
- When bad things happen, seek God’s will in them.
- No, I don’t mean try to figure out how all this bad stuff might be good stuff from some cosmic perspective; that’s a sure path to bitterness. Rather, try to see ways in which opportunities for God’s grace are opened up by tragedy, and ways in which insidious evil is excluded.
- Learn humility.
- Don’t pretend to know all the answers. In 1988 there was a book by a Mr. Whisant that cited 88 reasons why the Lord would return in September 1988. Obviously, the Lord didn’t return. (If He did, we’ve had it!) Mr. Whisant paid a high price in embarrassment (not to mention probably a lot of soul searching) because of his spectacular error.
Instead of trying to show yourself wise and knowledgeable, strive to show yourself submissive and obedient. That way, whatever comes, you will have the proper response.
In this world you will have many troubles. But do not let your heart be troubled, for Jesus has overcome the world.