Saturday, 18 February 2017

Plain sailing? No!

We don’t want you to be uninformed… about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 2 Corinthians 1:8

Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?… the darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88: 14, 18

A preacher I heard recently asked us to compare our spiritual lives to a boat. In essence (I’ve tweaked his sermon a bit) we might fit into one of five categories.

First, we might be sailing. We aren’t having to work too hard – our sails are up, the breeze is blowing, and we’re forging ahead. Great!

Second, we might be rowing. This isn’t so easy – we’re having to bend our backs to the oars and work steadily and energetically. But we are making progress.

Third, we might be drifting. Either there’s no wind, or we have taken the sails down without picking up the oars, so we’re at the mercy of the waves and the currents. Not good!

Fourth, we might be struggling. The wind is howling, the waves are choppy, and it looks as if we might be about to go down. It’s hard – but we’re keeping going.

Fifth, we might be sinking. Disaster looms…

Do you see yourself anywhere there?

For a moment I was a little worried about where the preacher was taking us. There are Christians who believe that every day of the Christian life we should be in category one: sailing serenely along. Hitch your sails to the wind of the Spirit! Let go and let God! Lie back and enjoy the sunshine and the blue sky!

And I knew that wasn’t me – no, not by a long way.

But soon my mind was set at rest. The majority of us, said the preacher, are in category two: rowing. Sometimes it’s quite tough, and often not remotely exciting. But as far as we can judge we’re moving on with God. Yes, perhaps there are times when it is, as the saying goes, “all plain sailing”, but those times are the exception rather than the rule. The Christian life, generally speaking, is not easy!

Perhaps you feel you’re in category three: drifting. Look out! This is the most dangerous place to be, because what it usually means is that we have become lazy and careless; we have allowed the world’s temptations to get a hold on us. The warning bells are ringing – but we’re not hearing them. The lights are flashing – but we’re not seeing them. As Jesus puts it to the church in Ephesus, we have “lost our first love” (Revelation 2:4).

Wake up! Stir yourself! Get a grip! A boat that drifts may be fine for a time – but it could end up anywhere: on rocks, in quicksands, over a waterfall, far out to sea…

Categories four and five are the ones that made me think hardest: struggling and sinking. They brought to mind the two striking passages at the head of this article.

First, there is Paul, the great man of God – preacher, apostle, evangelist, church-planter, missionary, letter-writer, fund-raiser – telling us about a time when he was struggling, and even fearing he might be sinking. He talks about being “under great pressure”, about barely being able to “endure”; he even hints at “despairing of life”. “Despair” isn’t a word I naturally associate with Paul! – but there it is.

And then Psalm 88… How glad I am that this terrible psalm is in the Bible. How thankful I am for the honesty of God’s word.

Am I right to call it a “terrible psalm”? Well, read it for yourself. Can you imagine a more terrible last line than “the darkness is my closest friend”? Throughout all eighteen verses there is not the faintest glimmer of light.

The writer is conscious of sin; he clearly has a sensitive conscience. But he doesn’t really know why God should plunge him into darkness like this: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?”

And couldn’t that be the cry of any of us? – the person struggling with depression, perhaps, or overwhelmed by tragic and heart-breaking circumstances.

However bleak the words of Paul and the psalmist may be, I have to put them in the “struggling” rather than the “sinking” category. The very fact that they cried out to God shows that they weren’t going under completely. Even to hang on by your finger nails is an act of faith. God sees it, and he will honour it.

Even though their circumstances were clearly desperate, the person I worry about far more than them is the drifter: that’s where the real danger lies.

So… where would you say you are on the sea of life?

Lord God, my life is not easy, my circumstances far from straightforward. Please help me hold on to you by faith, remembering the sufferings of many of my fellow-Christians, and of the Lord Jesus himself. And so bring me to calmer waters and perfect peace. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment