I talked Sunday (in an introduction to a sermon preached last Sunday) about ads in comic books. There was another one. You could send off for instant sea monkeys. Just drop them into water and then, “Voilà!” You have an aquarium filled with a happy family of these “frolicsome pets” that you can even teach to “obey your commands like a pack of friendly trained seals!”
Sound too good to be true? Well, I sent off for them. Yes, I confess it. And I dropped them into an empty (I think it was) peanut butter jar. Well, nothing happened. Was it remnants of Skippy that killed them, or was I just fooled by the ad? I will never know.We do not arrive as mature disciples of Jesus de novo. The invitation that Jesus gives us is not “don’t worry, be happy” but “take up your cross and follow Me.”
Eugene Peterson put the issue like this:
“A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society).
We know this to be true. But what do we do? How do we respond in faith?
David wrote, and the King James translators put it:
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalms 119.71 KJV).
The NIV put that verse this way:
“It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalms 119.71 NIV).
But Eugene Peterson, in The Message, paraphrased it to say:
“My troubles turned out all for the best — they forced me to learn from your textbook.” (Psalm 119:71, The Message.)
I used to be a salesman and I know there is a principle at work in this verse that is so powerful and also so encouraging. At first, I was downhearted when I went, door to door, to sell insurance (also photo albums, electric signs and magazines) and no one bought. But then I began to learn that each failure, each rejection was a stepping stone to success! I had it figured out that I would be rejected about 9 out of 10 times. So every time I left the door with a rejection, I would say to myself, “Well, boy, you are ONE CLOSER TO SUCCESS!”
Well, the Christian life is not exactly like that. But it is a series of events, of life experiences, sometimes hardships and failures that lead, like stepping-stones to the place where God is leading us, to the place of maturity in Him. It is what I think of when I see Rembrandt’s magnificent painting of Peter in prison (Apostle Peter Kneeling, 1631). The pain of the past, the hope of faith, a commitment that has been born out of personal weakness and personal acceptance of Jesus’ forgiveness: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
So today as you live your life, come to terms with you sin. Ask forgiveness, and live life forward, not backward. Explore your relationship with Jesus Christ in private prayer, reflect on your failings but give them to God, realize your gifts and your zest for service, and where God has used you best. Recognize that the echoes of regret over why you said what you did and why you failed to do what you should have done couldn’t condemn you, if you are in Christ, but can guide you. Remember: Through Jesus, and the power of the Cross and the Resurrection at work in your life, God will so transform you foibles, so rearrange your mistakes, and overrule your foolishness, that in the end, you will say with David, “It was good to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”
No instant sea monkeys here. But then again the Christian faith is not dispensed but lived. The banner does not read, “Try this!” but, “Come and die… and in doing so you will live.”