As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Several years ago I drove to Chicago to visit my longtime friend and college roommate in the hospital. Eric had always had the physique of a bodybuilder and was one of the strongest guys I’ve ever exercised with. But something had gone terribly wrong. He began losing energy and dropping weight fast. His wife called to tell me things had gotten so bad he had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He had some rare disease and infection in his gut. I don’t remember what it was called but I do remember walking into his hospital room and seeing him. I barely recognized him. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes bulged, his skin was grey and arms were as thin as rails. He may have weighed 100 pounds. We spoke just before he was rushed into the operating room. He asked, “Why is this happening to me?” His career was just getting started, his boy had just been born. Why was God doing this to him? He wondered why everyone else got to live such trouble-free lives while he had to endure this pain and the prospect of an early death. I said I didn’t know but we prayed and the nurse wheeled him out.
By the grace of God, Eric pulled through that day. And after many more surgeries over the next few years, and through a very dark period of related depression, he is doing much better today.
Pain and grief often force these searching questions out of us. In our lamentation we cry out “Why me? Why must we suffer?”
If the man who was born blind asked, “Why me?” the answer would have been “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (Jn. 9:3) If Mary and Martha, after losing their brother Lazarus to illness, would have asked, “Why us?” the answer would have been “so that you may believe.” (Jn. 11:15) If the paralytic man would have asked, “Why me?” the answer would have been “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mk. 2:10) If Paul, pondering his thorn his flesh, would have asked, “Why me?” the answer would have been “so that the power of Christ may rest upon [you].” (2 Cor. 12:9)
As Doy Moyer pointed out, ““Why me?” need not be a negative question, but it does need to be self-reflective. It can lead to an answer demonstrating selfishness and bitterness, or it can lead to a God-glorifying response that demonstrates reliance on God.”
We all need to seriously evaluate how we view and respond to life’s trials. It is easy to affirm the value of affliction when life is delightful. We can quote James 1:2 with a smile on our face and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with a twinkle in our eye. But can we trust that passage and sing that song when trials come?
If we believe the Lord knows what he is doing, we will rely on his strength to see us through the trial. If we believe it is God’s will that we be “conformed to the image of his Son” who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), we won’t ask “Why me?” so much as “Why not me?” Those moments when God feels most distant may very well be the times he is forming Christ within us.
Only in our weakness can we learn the sufficiency of God’s grace and the perfection of his power. Only in our affliction can we learn to “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9)
Paul and Silas sang hymns in the darkness of their prison cell in Philippi (Acts 16:25). May God shine the light of his word into the darkness of our trials. May we learn to sing: “Let the treasures of the trial / Form within me as I go / And at the end of this long passage / Let me leave them at your throne.”
He gives us more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sends us more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He adds His great mercy,
To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Fear not that your need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father will carry both you and your cares.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He blesses, and blesses, and blesses again.
The poem above was written by Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932). Annie was born on Christmas Eve in a small town in New Jersey but was orphaned in her early childhood after her mother died giving birth to her sister and her father passed away from an incurable disease. Upon graduating high school Annie took a position as a teacher but by her second year began to suffer from severe arthritis. Shortly thereafter, Annie and her sister were orphaned again losing both their adoptive parents within a few months of each other.
Despite these challenges, Annie retained her cheerful and optimistic demeanor and found solace in writing poetry. Her work exhibits a deep trust in God and offers comfort and hope to the weary. Annie was also known for corresponding with others who suffered similar trials, always encouraging them with poetry she entitled ‘What God Hath Promised.’ She wrote over 6,000 poems including ‘The World’s Bible’ and ‘He Giveth More Grace’ which others have set to music and are used in hymnals today. In her obituary published in the New York Times she was called the “poet of helpfulness.”
Matthew Bassford reminds me of Annie Flint. Matthew is a gifted hymn writer and poet who preached the gospel for many years in Illinois and Tennessee. He has long championed hymns that are rich with Scriptural content and beautiful in their arrangement. He is a prolific writer on Christian topics and has contributed greatly to our modern hymnals by penning such moving songs as ‘Exalted,’ ‘A Foretaste of Your Rest,’ ‘Be Strong and Courageous’ and ‘You Do Not Change,’ hymns we sing together at Dulles.
Matthew was diagnosed with ALS and, at the age of forty-five, is now in its final stages. He is wheelchair-bound and dependent on others to help him with simple daily tasks most of us take for granted. Matthew is spending his last moments with us wisely by writing (I should say dictating, as he cannot physically write any longer) on the brevity of life and preparing for the end. Like Annie, Matthew is using his present condition of weakness to manifest the strength of God and the sufficiency of his grace (2 Cor. 12:9-10). With every hymn and article, he is pointing us to Jesus. His words are all the more poignant to me now that his time is almost up.
A few weeks ago, Matthew posted Annie Flint’s hymn, ‘He Gives More Grace’ and wrote, “When I first encountered this hymn about five years ago, I thought it was beautiful. Now, I know from experience that it is true. It glorifies God and equips the Christian to face intense trial.” I encourage you to pray for Matthew and his family during his final months but also to read his articles and hymns seriously. We are all going to be in his position eventually. We all have to face our own mortality. The only question is, will we do so with confidence in the God who gives more grace?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.
The Hebrew word for “trust” (בְּטַח btakh) is used in a literal sense to physically lean upon something for support. Think of climbing rungs on a ladder. You are entrusting your body’s weight to each rung. The higher you climb, the higher the stakes in your trust.
In a figurative sense, it means to rely upon someone or something for protection, support or help. It is often used in the Old Testament to describe false securities, trusting in things that eventually prove worthless. Ezekiel provides a vivid example of this figurative use of “trust.” Instead of leaning upon the Lord in their hour of need, as the prophets consistently instructed them to do, Israel forged a military alliance with Egypt to protect them from the growing threat of Assyria (2 Kgs. 18; Isa. 36-37), something the prophets consistently warned them against. When Assyria finally attacked and defeated Egypt, Judah was devastated. In Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt he says that they “have been a staff of reed to the house of Israel, when they grasped you with the hand, you broke and tore all their shoulders; and when they leaned on you, you broke and made all their loins to shake.” (Ezek. 29:6-7)
We often misplace our confidence to our own hurt, putting all our hope and trust in a career that doesn’t work out, an economy that goes belly up or a government that fails to deliver. As David said, those who “trust in chariots and… horses” will be disappointed because, given enough time, “they collapse and fall.” (Psa. 20:7-8) The same will result when we lean upon our own moral goodness, our limited understanding or any other changeable false security. Scripture describes this folly variously from building a house on sand to being blown about by the wind on the sea.
What does it mean to “trust in the Lord with all your heart”? At the very least it means to “not lean on your own understanding.” Despite the maxims of our culture which say the exact opposite, if we take a minute to think about the proverb we will agree with its wisdom. We all remember how our 15-year-old-self thought our 10-year-old-self was a fool. And subsequently, how our 25-year-old-self thought our 15-year-old-self was a fool and how our 35-year-old-self thought our 25-year-old-self was a fool, etc. The more wisdom we attain the more apparent our folly. Even now, we are fools. Therefore, “do not lean upon your own understanding.” Every decision is fork in the road with the crooked path of our limited wisdom leading to danger and loss on one side and the path of God’s wisdom leading to life on the other. If we “acknowledge” God in our decisions by prayerfully considering what he says in Scripture, he makes our path “straight”, that is, smooth and free from obstacles so that we can progress toward the goal (Isa. 40:3).
While “some trust in chariots and some in horses… we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” (Psa. 20:7-8) Are you anchored? Are you building your house upon the rock? Are you leaning on the everlasting arms of the Lord? Those who “trust in the Lord… shall not be moved.” (Psa. 21:7) The only object of secure trust, the only one worthy of placing our total confidence in, is the Lord because only he can bear our weight. Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (Jn. 14:1)
4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. 6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes samples a variety of human pursuits to find out the meaning of life under the sun. He concludes by affirming his opening pronouncement that “all is vanity.” (12:8; 1:2) The word “vanity” appears thirty-eight times in the book and literally means “vapor.” It describes that which is fleeting, ephemeral and elusive, with different nuances depending on the context. When applied to work, it indicates that the topsy-turvy nature of this life and its inevitable end mean that we cannot depend on our career to provide us with any enduring meaning or value.
In 2:18-23, the Preacher laments that death spoils all the wealth and achievements accumulated by a life of labor. Even if chance or misfortune do not rob us of our wealth, death surely will (1 Tim. 6:7). When death does come and the estate must be divided and shared, the heirs might foolishly squander everything their parents worked so hard for. The Preacher returns to the theme of work in the passage above (4:4-8) and surveys four attitudes toward work.
The competitive workaholic (4) — Although there are exceptions to this statement (some work honestly, some love their craft, some work simply to survive), much of our hard work is motivated by “envy,” a jealous spirit of competition, the unhealthy craving to outshine others. Those who find their identity in their career and work out of envy are doomed to an empty, frustrating existence of “striving after the wind” (cf. Col. 3:24).
The impoverished sluggard (5) — Here is the opposite extreme. The “fool” despises frantic work-rivalries and simply “folds his hands,” that is, he quits working altogether (Prov. 6:10; 24:33). His error is just as destructive. His complacency and idleness eat away not only what he has but what he is (“eats his own flesh”), eroding his self-control, his grasp on reality, his capacity to care and provide and, in the end, his self-respect.
The self-centered miser (7-8) — Another common motivation for work is the accumulation of wealth (Lk. 12:15ff). Such people are “never satisfied with riches” (cf. 5:10). Collecting possessions can become an obsession that prevents logical thinking: though he has no family, he never thinks to ask why he is working so hard. The life devoted only to acquiring more for oneself is an empty and “unhappy business.” Although the example given here is someone without a family, the same is true of someone with a family. By pursuing wealth he creates his own loneliness by having no time to spend with his loved ones. He may even convince himself he is doing it all for them but he is only masking his private devotion to the idol of wealth (Mt. 6:24).
The balanced worker (6) — Only when we are properly oriented toward God (12:13-14) can we can find contentment in our work (2:23-24; Phil. 4:10ff). “A handful of quietness” conveys a two-fold thought of modest demands and inward peace. This is not the fool’s selfish laziness nor the workaholic’s rat-race mentality nor the miser’s greedy materialism. This is the attitude that recognizes “one handful” (having one’s needs met through a modest income) is “better” than “two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind.” (See also Prov. 30:7-9; 1 Tim. 6:6-10) May God be glorified through our balanced attitude toward work. May we learn to be content and grateful for, as well as generous with, what God has given us.
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
We tend to think of the opening greetings of the epistles as routine formulas. We usually skip over them to get to the body of letter (and we certainly don’t preach on them!). While these opening greetings may seem routine to us, there is a depth to them that often goes overlooked. Paul usually foreshadows his discussion in the opening verses. Consider his greeting to the Galatians.
He’s a little edgy in introducing himself. In the very first verse, he defends his apostleship because some considered him a sub-apostle and disregarded his authority. He also subtly counters the ‘Jesus-plus’ heresy the Galatians had been swallowing. This was the idea that we need more than the gospel to be right with God (i.e. the Law of Moses). There is something conspicuously absent here as well that we see in every other opening of Paul’s letters: his customary prayer of thanksgiving. The Galatians need a kick in pants not a commendation, so he launches right into the problem.
In his greeting, Paul sets these blessings before them so that they recognize what they are forfeiting by walking away from the simple gospel. We can look at Paul’s greeting positively to show us what we have in Christ and to motivate us never to wander from him but rather to seek him more deeply.
First, the bounty of the gospel (3) in the blessings God gives. Notice the source of “grace” and “peace” are God the Father and God the Son. Have you ever noticed that grace always precedes peace? This is because one is a result of the other. We can only enjoy peace after we’ve reconciled to God through Christ (by grace). These blessings are continually available to us because are in constant need of them to sustain us through weariness.
Second, the wonder of the gospel (4a) in the love God shows. At the mention of “the Lord Jesus Christ” and his being “raised… from the dead” we are reminded of his perfect love which he expressed when he “gave himself for our sins.” Who could discount such love shown at such price toward such people?
Third, the liberty of the gospel (4b) in the freedom God wins. Jesus gave himself not just as an expression of love but as an act of power to “deliver us from the present evil age.” We were all in the grip of spiritual bondage, powerless to escape. But when Jesus was “delivered,” we received emancipation to live as we ought. Did you know that the word “delivered” is the same word translated “betrayed” in 1 Corinthians 11:23? Who betrayed Jesus? Judas, for money; Pilate for fear; the Jews for envy—but the Father for love!
Finally, the plan of the gospel (4c) and the will God executes. God’s love and power exhibited in the gospel were “according to the will of our God and Father.” That is, it was always God’s plan to rescue his people in this way. When Jesus was “delivered” on the cross, it seemed to be a divine blunder. Israel’s Messiah rejected by the ones he came to save? God must have miscalculated! But Paul affirms the cross was always the plan. In other places, he and other New Testament authors carefully show how Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The resurrection (mentioned in v.1) is, of course, what explains the cross. By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated his plan, his name and his Messiah, as well as giving hope to those who believe. To him “be glory forever and ever. Amen!”