Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand: and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Today we are continuing in a series of messages called “That’s NOT in the Bible!” We began this series last week, and we’ll be continuing it over the next several weeks. Each week we’re looking at a different popular phrase or saying that is often attributed to Scripture that can’t actually be found anywhere in the Bible. Though we are in the middle of a series, each of these messages can pretty much stand on its own, so if you miss a week here or there, you can still show up the next week and be able to hang in pretty well with what we’re talking about.
We are working from the premise that the Bible is one of the most beloved books in America. It is also one of the most misquoted. The list of offenders is lengthy - there are many people - a wide variety of people - who are giving the Bible credit for things it doesn’t actually say.
Today, I invite you to turn to your sermon notes as we look at the phrase, “This too shall pass.” May we pray.
My first encounter with the phrase, “This too shall pass,” came from a saying my grandfather used frequently. Encountered with some unpleasant situation, he’d say, “Well, as I always say about kidney stones - this too shall pass.” No small thing, really, for a man who once passed a kidney stone the size of a pea!
OK, so we know the phrase, “This too shall pass” didn’t come from the Bible. Where did it come from? We’re gonna have some fun with it, sorta like we did last week. I’m gonna give you four options of people who may have said this phrase, and we’re going to take an informal poll as to who you think said it. We’ll go through all four options, and then I’ll ask you to vote for the person you believe originated the phrase.
Option A - Attar of Nishapur (1145-1221): The Persian Muslim poet, who had an abiding influence on Persian poety and the Sufi tradition within Islam.
Option B - Helen Steiner Rice (1900 - 1981): The American writer of religious and inspirational poetry who also campaigned for women’s rights and improved working conditions.
Option C - King Solomon (10th century BCE - c. 922 BCE): a king of Israel, son of King David, known in the Hebrew scriptures for his writings, wisdom, and wealth, but whose sin, particularly idolatry and turning away from God, led to the kingdom being torn in two during the reign of his son.
Option D - St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430): the theologian who most directly influenced the medieval worldview, as well as having a profound influence on the shape of Western Christianity, of which we are a part.
So the origins of the phrase are a little muddy, but on a close play at the plate, we’re going to give credit to Attar of Nishapur, because he was at least one of the first people to write it down. There are a few versions to the legend that gives rise to the phrase, but most of them go a little something like this:
There was an eastern king who was very wealthy, but very unhappy. He had everything money could buy, but the happiness those possessions brought him was fleeting at best. One night, he had a dream in which he saw a beautiful gold ring. The next day, he called together his top advisors and wisest men, and he said, “That ring in my dream will bring me happiness. I must have it, and you must go out into the world and find it for me.”
Well, the king’s advisors searched far and wide, and eventually found a ring whose quality and beauty was unparalleled, and so they bought it at a great price, and brought it to the king. The king was elated, and before he put the ring on his finger, he noticed an inscription on the inside that said, “This too shall pass.”
And finally, the king realized that all the things he had sought for his happiness would pass away, including this great ring, and that as long as he placed his happiness and security in physical things, he might experience temporary happiness, but would never know lasting joy. That day he stopped chasing after temporary pleasures, and so the ring not only brought him the happiness he sought, but the joy he needed.
Later, Jewish theologians got ahold of this legend and kept all the details of the story exactly the same, except they named the king as King Solomon, and the inscription inside the ring became the Hebrew phrase “Gam zeh ya’avor,” “this too shall pass.”
This legend teaches a great truth when we examine it from this particular perspective. The king had staked his happiness on the amassing of worldly possessions, and the phrase “This too shall pass” reminded him that all the things we surround ourselves with are only temporary. In our tradition, this teaching is designed to help us place our trust in God rather than the temporary things of this world, and throughout Scripture, we are reminded over and over again that all things shall, in due time, pass from existence. All things, that is, except God. God’s love and God’s presence shall endure forever.
The prophet Isaiah wrote “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Peter would echo this sentiment a thousand years later: “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). We sing this in our songs – “Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away, but there’s something about that Name” and “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gains I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride,” and “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”
When we tie the phrase “This too shall pass” to the context in which it was originally used in this legend, it is a powerful course forward for the people of faith. Where do we place our trust? Where do we place our allegiance? To what do we cling to for our identity and security? To God of course, and nothing else. After all, everything else will pass, but God will not. Even good things in our lives that bring us great joy and comfort, those things will pass too. We must realize they are only temporary. Only God is forever, and over and over again, we are called to place our trust in God and God alone.
The legend about the king rings so true for King Solomon because ultimately, he failed to place his trust in God alone, and that was his downfall. He placed his trust in his intellect, his wealth, his power, and his influence. He turned away from God and placed his trust in so many other things—idols, if you will—and that was his ultimate downfall. And so, for the people of faith, the phrase “This too shall pass” helps us keep our priorities properly aligned when we are tempted to place our trust and identity in anything other than God.
The initial intent of this phrase is that we are to hold our possessions, our “things” lightly, and that’s a good and noble intention! However, the way we actually use it most of the time now is in the face of suffering. Instead of reminding us to seek our satisfaction and identity in God rather than in our stuff, it becomes this phrase we say whenever people are hurting, and those are two very different ways to appropriate this phrase!
Mike Ditka is one of the more famous examples in this alternate use of the phrase. The legendary NFL coach was giving a news conference the day after being fired as head coach of the Chicago Bears, and he decided to quote the Bible. A choked-up Ditka said, through his tears, “Scripture tells you that all things shall pass. This too shall pass.”
Aside from the fact that that saying is not in the Bible, Ditka used the phrase in the exact way it is intended 99% of the time it’s used, but when we use it this way, we just miss the whole point. Something bad happens, there is some rough patch we have to go through, there is some difficulty or trial, and we say, “This too shall pass” as an attempt to find solace in the fact that the situation is only temporary. We use the phrase as an attempt to gain control over suffering, or numb ourselves to suffering, or ignore suffering, or speak into the suffering of other people. Too often, the phrase “This too shall pass” serves as a band-aid to cover up suffering, which does a very effective job of hiding it, but doesn’t allow us to deal with it a way that might be most beneficial and faithful.
In the Scripture passage we read from Romans before the message, St. Paul gave us a different perspective on suffering. He said “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
His description doesn’t try to avoid suffering, or numb ourselves to it, or place a band-aid on it, or cover it up. Rather, he provides a perspective of what can happen when we place our suffering into the hands of God and trust God with it. He knows that God has not caused our suffering, that God is not the author of suffering, yet he trusts that God can still redeem it. He takes the suffering, the unpleasantness, the difficulty, the trial, and he places it in God’s hands. He says, “God, do SOMETHING with this! Don’t gloss over it, don’t numb me to it, but do SOMETHING with it through which you will be glorified and lifted up.”
Do you see how different that is than simply saying, “This too shall pass”? “This too shall pass” too often gives us a detour around difficulty – numbing us to our own problems, and excusing us from jumping into the problems of others. We miss an opportunity to invite God’s involvement, whether that is transforming something inside of us in our own suffering, or making our hands and feet available for God to use and enter into the suffering of another.
You know what I’m talking about here. Someone loses a job, someone is diagnosed with an incurable disease, someone loses their home, someone experiences the death of a loved one, or some other tragedy strikes, and someone else will inevitably, with the best of consoling intentions, say, “Don’t worry – this too shall pass.” I don’t doubt the accuracy of this statement or even the sincerity of the people who offer it, I just don’t know how helpful it is in the time tragedy strikes. To hold our possessions and the gifts we’ve been blessed with lightly is one thing; it’s something altogether different to hold someone lightly, particularly when their world is crumbling around them.
What we want to do instead is commend the person and the situation and the tragedy into the hands of a God who is no stranger to suffering, and who has willingly offered his very presence in the midst of the worst any of us will ever face, the God who willingly bears human suffering as God’s own, the God who knows how to take suffering and redeem it and transform it.
When tragedy strikes, rather than trying to come up with the right words, we want to come up with the right actions. No matter what we say, words will always fall short of fixing the situation. Our actions, however, can ease the pain just by sharing God’s love in the midst of a hard situation.
That’s why when someone dies, we take food to the family. Honestly, the last thing they probably need is yet another green bean casserole, but we take it anyway, not so much to fix the problem or even because they desperately need the food, but just to say, “Hey, you are going through a hard time, and I love you.” The practical reason we do this is pretty simple – in the midst of grief, they don’t need to be worrying about feeding themselves and their family. But we don’t provide food as a way of fixing the problem, we do so as a way of supporting and loving them and giving them room to grieve and actually deal with the pain they’re going through, and to let them know that whatever they face, they don’t face it alone.
Whatever the situation, the right thing to do is always to show love. That’s far more important than coming up with the right thing to say. Showing love in the midst of difficulty rather than coming up with the right thing to say – keeps us from choosing a detour around difficulty and opens us up to inviting God into the midst of it.
The statement, “This too shall pass” sorta closes the door on the conversation – though it is intended in comfort, it often sounds more like a pronouncement that things will get better. A far better response, particularly if we don’t know what to say, is to just be there – to give a hug, to lend a shoulder to cry on, to say, “I am so sorry you are going through this, and I have no idea what it must feel like. But as I pray for you and your situation, what do you need? How can I help, or how can I ask God to help?”
And that is precisely what St. Paul was getting at in our Scripture passage, knowing that suffering, when it is commended to God, can be transformed to become something altogether different. Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.
Again, do you see how different that transformation is from simply saying, “There there – this too shall pass”? It keeps us from too readily speaking into the suffering of others, leaving sacred space for God to speak and transform. Really, only God can speak into the suffering of others, and when we leave the space open, the question marks in tact, the silence uninterrupted, when the whole is placed into God’s hands, God is free to speak and transform as only God can do.
When it comes to saying, “This too shall pass,” we want to apply that to all the things we trust rather than God. But we don’t want to apply that other people and their situations. Let’s hold our things, our possessions, our stuff – let’s hold all of that loosely. But people? Let’s hold them as close to God’s heart as we can.