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When you’re in a hole & the dirt is getting dumped on you

The story is told of a farmer’s donkey who fell into an old, dry well. For hours it cried out as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. He was old, he didn’t have the strength to lift that size animal, and he didn’t have the kind of equipment it would take to rescue him. Night was falling, and a snowstorm was on the way. So to his deep regret, he decided to fill in the old well so that no more animals could fall in. but the donkey was done for.

So the farmer hopped on his tractor and began pushing dirt into the well opening. When he took a break to see if the donkey’s suffering was over, he looked down the opening and to his astonishment, it was standing on top of the loads of dirt that had been poured in. It turns out that as each waterfall of dirt poured in, the donkey shook it off, shifted his feet, and kept circling the well. 

The farmer jumped back on the tractor and got back to it as the storm began to blow in, and within the hour, the donkey rose to the top of the well and was led back to the safety of the barn.

The dirt that comes our way

Is there any parent who doesn’t hope that our kids will prove to be like that when life throws a bunch of dirt their way? If you can get past a donkey not being the most flattering comparison, we all hope that the people we love will find a way to make it through the dirt-loads that most everyone gets hit with along the way.

Some of you have walked through all the dirt of a marriage falling apart. As a pastor, it’s one of the hardest things to see, the heartbreak and anger of unfaithfulness or divorce.

For our kids, inevitably the day comes when they don’t make the team, get the girl or guy, pass the course, or have friends remain true friends. Dirt happens.

I’ve had friends throw every penny they had into a start-up venture only to have it turn to dust.

We have national discussions about the cost of health care, likely with people you know who are deep in a hole with medical debt. 

100,000 small businesses have gone down the hole and are permanently closed. Millions of people have lost their jobs over the past nine months, more than seven million of them losing their health insurance with the job.

What good is faith when the dirt is flying?

What does the Christian faith say to these kinds of real-life struggles? What can you do to help that good friend or loved family member, and yourself, become the kind of person who, when you find a bunch of dirt pouring down on you, manage to make it through?

That’s what I want to talk with you about today, about our faith. This is week 3 of our new year’s series Unshakable—each week in January taking a deep dive into one of five unshakable convictions of the Christian faith, the handful of beliefs that are unique to our faith. These are the things that Christians have always believed, the things that enable us to make it through. Most clearly articulated during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation from Scripture as five solas, sola being Latin for only. These are five uniquely Christian beliefs to hold onto in order to not be shaken. 

Week one we began with our belief that the Bible alone is the Word of God. The Old and New Testaments are how God has chosen to reveal himself and his plan for humanity’s good.

Last week we dove into the uniquely Christian belief that the only way anyone is ever set right with God is by His grace alone: not by our doing good or being less evil than anyone else. We are saved by grace. We said the best way to grasp the price paid for our salvation is to remember God’s grace as God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. 

G.R.A.C.E. = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense

We come this week to the third uniquely Christian belief, and that is that we are saved through faith alone. As the key verse from last week’s Scripture declares…

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith…”Ephesians 2:8

We are saved by God’s grace, through faith. I want to take you today to a New Testament passage about faith that in easier times, most would skip past. But with all the dirt flying around these days, this is the right time for us to take a deep dive into Romans chapter 5, verses one through five. Please open your Bible or Bible app there, please, Romans chapter 5.

While you’re turning there, here are the questions we need to go after. When we talk about faith, we mean faith in what? And faith for what? What is our faith for during events that are shaking the world with a pandemic, our nation with political acrimony, and many churches with terrible enemy-making? What is our faith for in such a time as this? That is exactly what Romans 5:1-5 speaks to. 

We read, Romans 5 verses 1-5… 

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. 

And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, 

because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:1-5

Here’s the sermon in a sentence: 

  • Through faith alone we thrive.
  • The same faith that saved us is also meant to continually shape us and refine us, mature us, grow us up in Christ. 
  • Through faith—applying our faith to today’s challenges—we can thrive, whatever dirt gets thrown our way.

Christians in 1st-century Rome needed to hear this because Emperor Nero had come to power—a brutal man whose mother murdered to get him into power, and then he murdered other family members and ultimately his own mother to stay in power. 

To be a Christian in 1st-century Rome was to be a tiny, unpopular minority in the capital of the greatest nation on earth, under an evil ruler. Within a couple years of this passage being written to the church in Rome, much of the city would be destroyed by a massive fire—and Nero would make Christians the scapegoat. God knew they would soon know what it feels like to be at the bottom of a well with dirt being dumped on their backs. 

And so the Holy Spirit led Paul to write this to them—that the same faith that had saved them would continue to shape and mature them through the difficulties. 

What God said to his people then, he says today. It is through faith alone that we thrive. Through faith, we can rise when others can’t. Paul breaks out three ways faith can lift you up when dirt is being dumped on you. Here’s the first:

  • Like Jesus, trusting God while suffering produces perseverance. 

Here’s how Paul says it: 

“We…glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance…”

Romans 5:3

He doesn’t say suffering is good. He doesn’t say suffering is desirable. God’s will for people is shalom, a peace that encompasses body, mind, and spirit. But until Christ returns, life will include suffering. The mindshift Paul lays out here is that for the Christian, the one who trusts God, suffering can produce something valuable in us that can come no other way. For the one who trusts God while suffering, the result is perseverance. 

I appreciate how Pastor Dan Meyer puts it: Perseverance is courage stretched out. [repeat] Suffering facilitates perseverance, when we trust the Lord in the midst of it. Trusting God while suffering grows your backbone, your pertinacity. Like that donkey that had been written off as a goner, faith can keep you moving in the face of suffering. 

If you ask me for one word that captures the year 2020, I would say it is exposed. The past many months have exposed all kinds of things, some good, some not so. One of the good things that’s coming for many of you is this one, perseverance in faith. When the pandemic reached our community, you readily pivoted to gathering online. 

You didn’t let a virus stop you from meeting together in a new way for this long season. That’s persevering by faith, and I commend you for it!

The perseverance that comes from facing suffering with faith is captured in the example of Bristlecone Pines. 

Bristlecone Pines are found in harsh settings and bad soils. Yet they’re among the longest-living life forms on earth. The Bristlecone Pine you’re looking at is 4,852 years old! Called the Methuselah tree after the longest-living man named in the Bible, look at where it lives—on a barren rocky landscape in California’s White Mountains. 

Considering the extremes they face in temperature, wind, and poor soil, it seems incredible that they would survive, no less thrive. But it is actually those rough conditions that makes their wood dense, and therefore resistant to rot, erosion, and infestation. 

So it is, Paul says, for those who face suffering with faith in God—that God who has saved you, will strengthen you in times of suffering. Suffering can produce perseverance in those who face it with faith, faith that God is still with you. My prayer for you—for yChurch as a congregation this year—is that through this hard season, God will spiritually make us Bristlecone Pines, with a tough exterior but tenderness inside; that we will trust God, and that he will develop perseverance in us. Like Jesus, may we trust God to produce perseverance in us. 

The second way faith can lift you up when dirt is being dumped on you is that…

  • Like Jesus, persevering in faith produces character.

Verse 4, Paul notes that perseverance produces character. James says the same in his New Testament letter, writing…

“The testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

James 1:3-4

When you trust God in the midst of suffering, he gives the strength to press on—perseverance. And persevering in faith in turn grows us in godly character. Christlike character is God’s goal for you and me.

But no one grows in good character apart from tests and pressures and crossroads where you have to choose which route you’re going to take. Good character looks like Jesus: devotion to God and to one another; integrity between public and private life; honesty rather than lies and shading the truth; self-sacrifice for the good of others rather than selfishness and self-centeredness. 

When life pitches a bunch of dirt your way, trust God to give you the strength to persevere. And trust him to take that hardship to hone your character. 

This isn’t in any way just theory. In the landmark book Cradles of Eminence, psychologists Victor and Mildred Goertzl describe their attempt to find a common thread that could account for the phenomenal attainments of more than 400 exceptional men and women of the 20th century. They studied the genius Albert Einstein, India’s Mahatmas Ghandi, modern-day Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah, and others. Each of them achieved far more than most people, and the Goertzls wanted to figure out why.

They expected the link to be remarkable intelligence, or extraordinary parenting, or even unusual opportunity. What they discovered, however, surprised them. They found that almost all of the highly exceptional people they studied had to overcome huge obstacles to become who they became. In other words, persevering through hardship is what honed and strengthened their character. It was hardships that made them stronger people.

We see it in heroes of our faith like Corrie ten Boom, from a Dutch Christian family who hid Jews in their home during Nazi occupation. They were caught, Corrie went through a series of concentration camps, and lived to a ripe old age known not for bitterness, but for astounding Christlike character. Faith is the only explanation. The same faith that saved her, transformed her despite terrible suffering.

If you’re a parent, it’s a mistake to give your kids everything they want without any effort on their part. It’s a mistake to shield them from the natural consequences of poor choices. The hardships they face may well be the defining circumstances that shape them into becoming the kind of young men and women you long for them to become, adults of good character.

Hardships can grow us in wisdom. Difficulties can enlarge our empathy and compassion, especially for someone else going through their own struggles. Your own sufferings can soften you to become more graceful toward others in their suffering. Odds are, the people you know who have the most admirable character are people who have gone through significant struggle along the way. They persevered, and grew in character as the result.

And the third way faith can lift you up when dirt is being dumped on you is that…

  • Like Jesus, character produces hope.

Paul writes…

“Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:3-5

Taken in the right spirit, the stresses of these days can grow us in patient endurance; that endurance in turn can hone and refine our character. And Christlike character churns out hope, a hope that will not disappoint, because it is fixed on the right thing—the love of God. We already have a taste. Far more awaits.

Hope as the Bible presents it as far more sure than the way we typically speak of, “I hope the Colts do better next year.” Biblically there’s a surety to the Christian’s hope, because it is hope in God.

Seeing more clearly through tears

I met Al Hsu when I was pastoring in Wheaton, outside Chicago. Al had very poor eyesight, vision readings around 20/400 instead of 20/20. But when a friend encouraged him to consider laser eye surgery, Al went for it. It dramatically improved how well he could see, to a range of 20/40—not perfect, but so close to clear vision.

Al was at a Christian conference sometime after surgery when a song they were singing deeply moved him as he squinted to make out the projected lyrics. You’ve had those times, haven’t you, when the Holy Spirit grabs your heart and meets you personally?

Al closed his eyes as they repeated the chorus, praying that God would guide him to not just know the Scriptures, but to live by them. When he opened his watering eyes, the lyrics onscreen shimmered, then came crisply into focus. He could see. Clearly. Without squinting. He could read every word easily, without thick glasses.

Al blinked several times, his vision wavered back and forth: clear, blurry, clear, blurry. Then he realized what was happening. While singing he had been tearing up, moved by the Lord, and the thin layer of tears on his eyes functioned like contact lenses. Don’t miss this: it was the tears that made his vision clearer—just like Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem, for those who were missing out on what he had for them. We never see as clearly as when we have tears like Christ’s tears in our eyes, when hardship moves us to trust God, persevere, grow in character, and cling to hope.

Source: Al Hsu, “The Vision Thing” Christianity Today (2-21-08)

Through faith we can thrive, even in difficulties

The same faith through which God has saved you, God calls you and me to apply to the struggles these days. It is through faith alone that we are saved, and it is by that same faith that we will thrive in these stressful times.

This is what honors and pleases the Lord—that we walk by faith. This is what the heroes of our faith were commended for: allowing suffering to produce in them perseverance, and in turn that perseverance to hone their character. That increasingly Christlike character in turn anchors us to hope—a hope that will be rewarded.

We have no control over who throws the dirt or when it comes. What we do have control over is our response. So I close with this: this year, what kind of person do you want to become more like? Do you want to honor the Lord, and be more of an example to those who know you of the Savior? If so, then join me in trusting the Lord, that the same faith through which he has saved us, will continue to shape and refine us, making us more like Christ. Through faith—applying our faith to today’s challenges—we can thrive, whatever dirt gets thrown our way.

So here’s my prayer for you, from the New Testament: I pray that from God’s unlimited resources he will strengthen you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him, so that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith. May you sink roots deep down into God’s love, and may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  Now to him who by his power within us is able to do far more than we ever dare to ask or imagine—to him be glory in the Church through Jesus Christ, forever and ever, amen!