Sunday, April 27, 2014

Faith that's Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker: God doesn't give you more than you can handle? (James 1:12-18)

12 Those who stand firm during testing are blessed. They are tried and true. They will receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward.
13 No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

It was late spring of 2004 when my mom was initially diagnosed with aggressive, stage 4 breast cancer.  Over the next five years, as she fought that battle which eventually took her life, the outpouring of love and support from friends and family were tremendous.

Most of the sentiments expressed were helpful and healing, and came from a very genuine place.  Most.  There were, however, other sentiments that were less-than-helpful, particularly those that tried to sound pious and theological and ascribe some sense of nobility and purpose to the pain.  Things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” “This is all part of God’s plan,” “God doesn’t give you more than can handle,” “Something really good will come out of all of this,” or my personal favorite, the very well-meaning woman at the funeral home who approached my sister and I, shaking her head, saying, “Well, if you all had prayed harder . . .”  My face apparently went four shades of red, and my sister, wisely, excused us and walked me outside for a few minutes!

I couldn’t help but think, “What causes people to say things like that?  Do they really believe these things about God?  And if they do, why in the world would anyone want anything to do with their god – their god sounds like a real jerk, and if that’s God, no thanks!”

Taken together, these phrases represent a sort of populist bumper sticker theology.  They are “Christian” (and I use the term loosely) clichés, axioms and truisms that can easily fit in a greeting card or on a bumper sticker; they’re easy to memorize, and if you don’t think about them too much, they sorta sound true.  And yet, their picture of God is not only inaccurate, but downright harmful.

Today we are beginning a new series of messages on “Faith that’s bigger than a bumper sticker.”  We’re going to take a look at some of these phrases and their implications, and see how they fall far short of expressing God’s heart, God’s will, and God’s intent for us and our world.

Why does it matter?  Two things, really.  First, as those who worship and follow God, we also serve as God’s representatives in the world.  We need to understand God, as best we can, in order to represent God accurately.  The sayings of bumper sticker theology not only misrepresent God, but I am convinced actually serve to drive people away from God rather than draw them toward God.

Second, I want you all to have a faith that is deep and rich.  I want you each to know God personally and intimately.  If God is big, than our faith should be, as well.  When things are going well, and when we and those we love face difficulty, we need a faith that’s bigger than a bumper sticker.  May we pray.

You have heard it said . . .
Today’s bumper sticker phrase is “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  This is one that gets thrown around when you’re going through some particularly difficult period in life, some well-meaning person will pat you on the shoulder, cock their head to the side a bit, and say, in a very wise and compassionate tone, “Well, just look at it this way: God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It sorta sounds right, doesn’t it?  And yes, there is some truth here, but we need to look at the context in order to get the most meaning out of it.  Many of you know that it was Mother Teresa who put this phrase into popular usage, when she famously said.  “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle; I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.”  Mother Teresa - no stranger to suffering and difficulty – if she can say it, why can’t we?  Because, when she said it, she was looking at the suffering of those around her, not her own.  It was not about what God would give her, but who, people to serve, people whose needs she was called to meet.

She made this statement in the context of servant ministry – “I know God won’t give me more people to serve, more needs to meet, more ministry to do, than I can handle.”  The genuine need and depth of suffering around her was so great – so much to do for others in the name of Christ – that it seemed overwhelming, at times.  And yet, she was called, as we all are, to minister the healing and life-giving presence of Christ into places of despair and hopelessness.  She was called, as we all are, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and to seek out the places of greatest need and do something about it.  Like Jesus, Mother Teresa was filled with compassion for the least, last, and lost of society, and she said “God won’t give me more than I can handle” as a statement of her trust in God to provide the resources she would need to fulfill her ministry.

That’s something very different than looking at someone who is at their breaking point and saying, “There, there.  God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  That’s just patronizing!  It does much more harm than good, and places us in a position of speaking for God, about what God will and will not do.  How do we know that?  What if we get it wrong?
Before you speak . . .
As a married man, I have learned not to speak for my wife.  I’ve learned that – I didn’t start out that way!  As a rule, we don’t speak for each other; I am not her spokesperson, nor is she mine.  We’re also careful about not serving as message service for each other; if you want her to know something or to ask her something, tell her, not me!

In the same way, we need to be very careful about speaking on behalf of God.  When we say something like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we are presuming to know the mind of God – what God will and won’t do – and I don’t know what you think, but that’s a pretty bold claim to make!  I also realize the irony in that, too: in my preaching role, part of what I do is speak, in a sense, on behalf of God!  Not just pastors, but every Christian, in the very acts of worship and service that are foundational to our faith, everything we do, everything we say, witnesses something about who we think God is, what God desires, and what God expects.  When we say to someone that God doesn’t give them more than they can handle, we’re presuming something we probably don’t actually know anything about.

It doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about God.  But, we allow reliable sources to inform our theological reflection.  For us in the Wesleyan tradition, we listen to Scripture, we engage Christian tradition, we use our God-given gifts of reason, and of course, our experience of new life in Christ.

When you hold up the phrase, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” as relating to personal suffering or difficulty against these four sources, you can quickly see that it just doesn’t hold up.

Who God is (and isn’t)
The Scripture we read today, “No one who is tested should say, ‘God is tempting me’” (James 1:13), in other words, the test isn’t from God!  Or “Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all” (James 1:16-17).  God is the source of good and perfect gifts, not hardship, and God’s character is faithfully unswerving in that regard.

The Scriptures tell us plainly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Love is God’s reigning attribute; there are certainly other aspects to God’s character, but love is always primary.  One of the overarching images of God through Scripture is a loving parent, one whose will is ever-directed toward the good of his children – that’s all of us.  How loving or good would it be for that parent to deliberately bring difficulty, hardship, and suffering into the lives of their children?  We would call the Department of Social Services on such a parent, for they are an abusive parent.  Likewise, any god who behaves this way is an abusive god, is certainly not our God!

Again the Scriptures tell us, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8).  Or, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  I don’t know about you, but I believe these things about God!  The first prayer I learned as a child began with “God is good.”  Again, I believe that!  I’m counting on it!  How about you?  “God is good!” (All the time!) and “All the time!” (God is good!)  We must believe that – why else would we say it?

Is God good?  Is God love?  Is God’s character consistent, or is it just flapping around in the breeze?  If all that’s true, and it is, why would a God who is our help in times of trouble be the one who sent us the trouble in the first place?  Jesus didn’t go around giving people diseases on Friday so he could them come and heal them on Saturday.  God is not sending us problems in one moment and then helping us through them in the next, but when we say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” that’s sort of what we’re implying.

You ever been blamed for doing something you didn’t do?  Had people angry at you for something you had nothing to do with?  How did that feel?

It’s lousy, and we do the same thing to God when we say things that make God the author of suffering and difficulty.  It is simply not God’s nature to send calamity or difficulty into our lives.

God isn’t the only force at work in the world
Let’s recognize that everything that happens in our lives isn’t necessarily from God.  God isn’t the only force at work in the world.  The reality is that human forces, natural forces, and evil forces also have their influence in our world.  There’s an awful lot all these things can do that go against what God wants for us – that grieve and disappoint and frustrate God just as much as they do us.

God isn’t giving people cancer or foreclosing on their homes or killing off their children or spouses.  God is not taking away people’s jobs or causing problems in their families or leading people into depression.  God is not causing car accidents or wars or racism or any other awful thing.

Not even natural disasters – I love the interview with the person whose house was built in a flood zone and just lost their house in a flood, who looks into the camera and says, “All I can figure is God is testing me” and I yell back at the TV, saying, “Don’t blame God for this!  You built your house in a flood zone and it got flooded!  How else did you think this was going to work out?”  Even though the insurance industry calls them “acts of God” – they are natural forces at work, not God testing or trying or judging anybody.  Maybe you ask, “Why are those things there in the first place?  Why would God create a world that could be so violent?

Take earthquakes and hurricanes, for example – both are absolutely essential to sustain life on this planet.  Earthquakes are the results of shifts in the plates that make up the earth’s surface, and they’re designed that way to release both pressure and heat from the earth’s core.  Without that system of relief in place, earth’s temperature would rise such that it could no longer sustain life.  Likewise, we know that hurricanes are an essential mechanism to cool our atmosphere to keep it in the range that supports life.  Flood zones produce rich soil in which the crops that feed us grow, even the occasional forest fire promotes a healthy forest.

When we’re affected by those things, we don’t blame God or surmise that God is testing us or judging us.  We don’t pray for God to stop all earthquakes and hurricanes, because doing so would mean the destruction of all life on the planet.  A more appropriate response would be to learn not to live in the areas most affected by these phenomena, or if we do, to engineer our buildings and provide the community resources in order to survive through them.

Does that mean that God has nothing to do with these things?  Not exactly.  Remember, God doesn’t send the trouble, but God is our help in trouble.  God’s response to pain and suffering is to send others – us – to provide care.  God calls us to provide food and clothing and shelter to those in need.  To offer compassion and love and support for those who need it most.  To wrap our arms around those who survive and help them put the pieces of their shattered lives back together again, and we trust that when our lives fall apart, they will in turn be there to help us.

As we peel away the bumper sticker theology of “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we peel away the idea that everything in our lives is directly from God.  In place of that idea is the realization that a lot happens in our lives that God didn’t do, including things that are just as painful to God as they are to us.

We also peel away the idea that we’re supposed to be able to handle everything that comes our way.  That’s not true, either.  Life is overwhelming sometimes.  More than we can handle, in fact.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you lack faith or trust in God, because God is not the one giving you more than you can handle; life is.  God’s promise is to simply be present with you, whether you handle it or not!

The other promise is that God has given us each other, the Church, the body of Christ, a community, so that whatever life throws our way, we don’t have to handle it by ourselves.  Church isn’t a place you have to pretend to hold it all together, actually, if you’re going to fall to pieces, this is a great place to do it.

Life often does give us more than we can handle.  When we encounter those whose worlds are falling to pieces, they don’t need our platitudes; they need our help and support.

Life gives us way more than we can handle.  God gives us each other.

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