Admit You’re Miserable
February 8, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
God’s Word is both sour and sweet, terrifying and consoling [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 189]. In Job 7:1 we have one of those sour words: Life is a hard service, filled with emptiness and misery. But is this a word for us?
Christians have wanted to say that Job’s word isn’t for us. He was miserable, alright, but we don’t have to be. We’re doing just fine – we’re mostly healthy and prosperous, happy and free. Job may have been miserable, but we don’t have to follow down the path he went. He lost a great deal – family and friends, home and wealth, health and honor. But that hasn’t happened to every one of us. We don’t have the devil riding us as he did (Job 2:4-6).
But Job doesn’t seem to be listening. He thinks we all are like him in some sense – even if the degrees may vary. So he universalizes his predicament – extending it to each and every one of us: Misery is our one lot in life. And that’s not the end of it. Others in the Bible chime in with him. In Hebrews 11:36-38 we read about the agony suffered by the first Christians:
Some suffered mocking and scourging.... Some were stoned and sawn in two.... Others were destitute, afflicted, ill-treated,... wandering over deserts,... and in dens and caves.
These reports take our breath away. How ghastly and horrible could it be! Sawn in two? You’ve got to be kidding! But that’s not the end of it either. In 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 we hear the early Christians speaking down through the generations:
We are... perplexed but not driven to despair;.... struck down, but not destroyed.
Here we have even more to worry about – but now there’s at least some resistance. Christians were struck down but not destroyed. Somehow they managed to absorb the blows and keep on pressing forward. Terrible things happened to them that they couldn’t figure out – they were perplexed – and yet they did not despair. They weren’t forlorn or depressed. They toughed it out instead.
The Biggest Cover-Up Ever
But Christians in the industrialized world today don’t suffer like that – or so we say. Like the Laodiceans of old, we would never admit to being “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Most of us aren’t that way visibly – and we would do all we could to cover-up any internal turmoil resembling theirs.
I have an
old college roommate who used to run eight miles each morning before he
went in to work his high-pressured, high-paid county job. Loaded up with
endorphins from his run, nothing could faze him until around 2 pm – then
he would cave in, becoming his old cranky, despairing self again. Others
over-eat to cover-up their woes. Others still use alcohol and all kinds
of drugs to mask-over their problems. Jane and I had a high-paid lawyer
Others of us travel to forget our sorrows. Still others go from one entertainment center to another to distract ourselves from what’s really going on in us. Others are workaholics. And others simply obsess over whatever is closest at hand – anything to keep us from looking our misery straight in the face. Listen to Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that wonderful Lutheran author, on the perils of such busyness (Kierkegaard’s Writing, 15:66-67):
In the world there is always hustle and bustle.... This busyness is indeed like a spell. And how sad to note how its power grows with the increasing buzzing, how the spell spreads, seeks to trap the earlier prey so that childhood or youth are scarcely granted the stillness, the remoteness, in which the eternal attains a divine growth.... In busyness there is neither the time nor the tranquility to acquire the transparency that is necessary for... just transparently understanding oneself in one’s unclarity. No, busyness – in which one continually goes further and further, and noise, in which the true is continually forgotten more and more, and the multitude of circumstances, incentives, and hindrances – continually makes it more impossible for one to gain any deeper knowledge of oneself.
So keeping busy is far more dangerous than most of us would imagine. It distracts us from the best, under the best of motives.
Against all of these shenanigans concocted to deny our misery, Luther in his Large Catechism (1529) nails it down perfectly:
Where God’s Word is preached, accepted or believed, and bears fruit, there the blessed cross will not be far away. Let nobody think that he will have peace; he must sacrifice all he has on earth.... Now, this grieves our flesh and the old Adam, for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go whatever is taken from us (BC, p. 429).
These are wild and wooly words – taken to an extreme – that we must sacrifice all we have on earth. So what does this mean?
For all the unevenness in the claim and the many counterfactual arguments that we could level against it – it still holds a truth that goes to the very heart of the Biblical message. And it is that we are neither to pursue pleasure nor misery in this life. Our reason for being isn’t to have as much fun as we can. Nor is it to suffer neurotically every minute of the day. We are not to be like that. Instead we are to love God with everything that is in us and take care of our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). When we get up in the morning, whatever we do and wherever we go, we are to try to glorify God and help others. And that’s all.
So being pleasure-seekers above all else is wrong. That’s not to say we won’t have moments or even stretches of time that bring us pleasure. It just to say that we shouldn’t pounce on them and try to multiply them endlessly – for they are not the be-all and end-all of life. They are only windfalls given by God to mercifully sweeten our plenty sorrowful days.
And the same goes for misery. We shouldn’t delight is our mishaps and seek more and more of them. We shouldn’t be gluttons for punishment and pain and misery. That’s called masochism and it’s a sickness. We see it in the modern phenomenon of cutting, which isn’t virtuous at all (see Marilee Strong: A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain, 1998).
In the early church there was a notorious case of masochism in one Simon Stylites (389-459) – who sat on top of a sixty foot high, narrow column, starving and brutalizing himself until in misery he died (Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, 1976, p. 141). This was horrible and never to be emulated. But that wasn’t because God wants us to take it easy on ourselves, but because it’s a waste. The harvest is ready and the laborers are few (Luke 10:2). So don’t squander your life on such empty suffering. You’re needed in the field telling about God’s kingdom and calling people to repent, be baptized, and serve the Lord. And you can’t do that sitting sixty feet up in the air – in isolated pain and misery.
Rejoice in Your Sufferings
So don’t grab for misery – but don’t run away from it either. Do God’s will and suffering will be yours – even if you’re not aiming for it specifically (Luther’s Works 35:56). Even so, misery will somehow find you. But this will not happen just because of the general brokenness of life due to our intrinsic limitations and inefficiencies. No, we’ll have difficulties because of the values we practice and promulgate in the name of Christ. If they call me Beelzebul, Jesus said, “how much more will they malign” you who are following me (Matthew 10:25)! Because of this clash of values, we’re revealed to be not of the world, and “therefore the world hates” us (John 15:19).
But these difficulties are a waste – pure and simple. Romans 5:3-5 tells us that when we endure the misery that comes our way, our character is strengthened and we have a hope that does not disappoint us. That’s because we only endure by God’s mercy (1 Corinthians 10:13). So that hope that we gain by suffering is grounded in God who gets us through the hard times. And God does not waver or vary in helping us (James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8). And so that hope doesn’t disappoint us by being here today but gone tomorrow. So even though we don’t actually rejoice because we’re miserable – we do so because of what it brings.
God Does the Heavy Lifting
But what if we can’t tough it out? Then what? If we cannot endure to the end, will be lost (Matthew 10:22; Revelation 2:10)? Well, if we trust in ourselves to make it through, no doubt we’ll probably lose out. But there’s another better way. In Psalm 147:6 we hear these sweet words – in contrast to the mostly sour ones we’ve been hearing so far:
The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts down the wicked to the ground.
Nothing in this verse is about what we’re doing – it’s all about God either lifting up or casting down. Now, I admit that the part about casting down is a bit grim. Casting down the wicked isn’t a pretty picture. But the wicked are the ones who directly and intently go against God’s ways – and on purpose. They don’t want to dwell in the God’s kingdom. They want to do what is right “in their own eyes” (Numbers 15:39; Deuteronomy 12:8; Isaiah 30:10-11; Luke 12:19, 15:13; Acts 13:46).
But if you’re lowly – then these words are sweet. The lowly are not cast down with the wicked – nor are they left to languish in their own failures. Instead they are lifted up – as if on eagles’ wings (Isaiah 40:31). Now there is no hopelessness in that. No longer are we bound by our failures. Now the pressure’s off of us and placed right on God. And he lift us up – for certainty he does.
But not for the scoffers and their scoffing (see, for example, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, 2008). They say God can’t lift us up. Too many bad things happen on his watch for him to be trustworthy, they say. And we don’t even know that he exists since he’s invisible by design, they say. But against these critics and those like them, hold on to Philippians 4:13 and say with the Apostle Paul, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Don’t hedge your bets. Don’t give up on God. Believe what the word says and receive power from on high (2 Timothy 1:7)!
Forgiveness in Christ
But even with all of this glory, what happens if I fall off the wagon and go the way of the wicked – at least for a while? What then? Is my goose cooked? Are we then cast down? No, because even for those who fail, there is hope and help. In 1 John 1:7-9 we have these wonderful words, ensconced in the liturgy of the Church:
The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.... If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
So rather than trying to force ourselves to perform at a higher level, we stay where we are and confess our sins – and God takes care of the rest. He forgives us – we don’t do that. He cleanses us – that’s not for us to do. We confess, all right. We admit we’re failures, for sure. But God who is faithful and just forgives us and cleanses us – that’s his doing alone.
Do you think this divine work hinges on your confession? No, it doesn’t at all. Does that mean it doesn’t matter if you repent then? Does that mean that God forgives willy-nilly? No, we must confess our sins and feel sorry for what we’ve done to dishonor God’s holy name and spit upon his love for us all. But that doesn’t mean our confession is decisive. No, it’s necessary, as the philosophers say, but not sufficient. It’s needed but it doesn’t do enough to take care of our problems. That’s left for the blood of Jesus to do. It’s what cleanses us – not our confession. Jesus blood saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). Our confession could never do that. Only his blood assures us of our forgiveness (Ephesians 1:7). Only his blood guarantees God’s love for us (1 John 4:10). Only his blood makes peace between God and us (Colossians 1:20). Only his blood washes us clean (Revelation 7:14).
No wonder Martin Luther once erupted in the middle of a sermon and said: “It is not just faith but faith in his blood” [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker (1988) 6:163]. Indeed, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). That’s because Christ’s death is certain where our confession is not – it waxes and wanes. But the blood of Jesus doesn’t go up and down the cross. When he died, it was finished, once for all, never to be taken back again as if it never had happened (John 19:30; Hebrews 9:26). So Lutherans have taught down through the generations in their Confessions that
Christ is true God and true man,... was crucified... in order to be a sacrifice... for all... sins and to propitiate [or appease] God’s wrath (BC, pp. 29-30).
That propitiation is a strange word. But what it means is glorious – that the death of Jesus calms down God’s anger against us (BC, p. 138; LW 51:277). In that death our planned punishments are shifted onto Jesus. That means we won’t have to be punished as well for our sins since Jesus already has been punished for them. Plus, God doesn’t want to punish us any longer since our sins had already been punished – just not in us but in Jesus – our great and grand and glorious “substitute” (LW 22:167). Our hope rests on that substitution. So it won’t do to water that substitution down by saying that it isn’t a “replacing” of our punishment with that of Christ’s agonizing death, but only an “exchanging” of our spot on the chopping block for a safer one along side of Jesus [Gerhard O. Forde, A More Radical Gospel (2004) p. 112, note 13]. For such an exchange has no permanence since it’s empty of any guarantee that it won’t reverse itself. Overcoming the wrath of God by the blood of Jesus is the only such guarantee.
So give thanks for Christ Jesus and his sacrifice and your faith in him that enables you to know him, love, serve and follow him. Know that this Savior whom you’ve heard from today is here for you, in, with and under (BC, p. 575) the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. So come, bowed down at the Altar and receive him that your faith in him may grow and your love for others abound.
Bigger Fish to Fry
Then do good works in his name when you leave this place. Do good works knowing that they “cannot avert your doom, they help and save you never.” Do them instead “to prove that faith is living” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), No. 297].
Mark 1 is full of good works – healings, exorcisms and preaching.
But let us dwell on Mark 1:38. There Jesus tells his disciples to move
on to the next towns before all the sick had been healed in
And he’ll answer your prayer, for he wants you to succeed. He wants you to let the good news shine forth throughout the world (Matthew 5:14-16). So look for success and thank God when it comes. Do that knowing that admitting your misery will help along the way. For if you were only looking for an easy life you would never promulgate such a message. The fact that there is a deep-seated misery in Christianity (2 Corinthians 6:10) is not debilitating but actually – strangely – invigorating. This is because our misery withholds from us any and all excuses that would hold out for a life free from pain, suffering and difficulty. So in the end Job gets turned on his head – and the misery that he argues for –in the darkest of tones – actually brings a brightness and competence that can be found nowhere else (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). For it was also Job who said: “He who knows the way I take; when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)