Most real wisdom, the deep stuff, is formed in a crucible. It is shaped out of pain. We can know many things – things learned in books, things gleaned from observation or conversation, things fitted together through contemplation. All is good, and all is needed. But rarely does knowledge become wisdom without first passing through fire. It’s suffering that transmutes it. The difference between a scholar and a sage is not how much they know, but how much they’ve been broken.
But there’s a danger. Suffering also embitters. The difference between a sage and a grumbler is not how much they’ve been broken, but how much they’ve found grace in their brokenness. The wisest people I know have been through many hard things. But that’s true also of the most bitter people I know. All that’s made the difference, as far as I can tell, is that the wise keep finding grace, and the bitter keep missing it.
The Bible confirms this. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb. 12:15).
The Bible promises that there is no suffering devoid of grace. There is no pain where grace is absent. There is no loss or mistake where grace does not abound. Grace is everywhere, though sometimes it takes deep searching to see it. I have to choose daily, and then throughout the day, to find grace, and to lay hold of it.
Are you in a crucible? Are you going through something right now that threatens to embitter you?
Just stop. Breathe. Pray. And look around. Do you see it? Some sign of God’s goodness and presence right there, within reach? A cup of hot tea. A patch of sunlight on the floor. A cupboard with food in it. A dog that doesn’t care how messed up you are or how much you’ve messed up. A grandma that loves you.
A God that keeps running to greet you.
Don’t miss it, O wise one.
I single line near the end of Matthew’s gospel has my full attention:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matt. 28:16-17).
But some doubted. That’s the line.
I can’t stop thinking about it.
This scene on a mountain takes place right after Jesus’ resurrection and right before his great commission.
It’s with the eleven disciples. These are those who saw Jesus crucified, and now behold his glory. These are those who see the risen Lord with their own eyes, touch him with their own hands, hear him with their own ears. These are those who Jesus entrusts with the entire weight of his purposes in the world:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
But some doubted.
All worship, but some doubt.
That describes me. It describes, I suspect, most Christ-followers. We’re a species of worshiping doubters, a breed of doubting worshipers. Our doubts mingle with our faith. Our hesitancy is joined to our fervency. Our dogmatism is woven with our skepticism. Our hallelujahs compete with our laments.
We worship, and we doubt.
Or at least, I do.
My strength is in the Lord my God, but I can be frightened or saddened by the least little downturn or disruption. I attest to God’s goodness in the assembly of the righteous, but grow suspiciously quiet elsewhere. I trust in the Lord with all my heart, and sometimes worry all night long.
I worship, and I doubt.
But here’s the good news: Jesus chooses me anyhow. Jesus works with me all the same. Jesus entrusts me with heavenly purposes nonetheless. Jesus came to them and said, Here’s my authority, and here’s my plan. Now go fulfill it. He does not segregate the worshipers from the doubters. He knows that most of us have both impulses at work in us. He calls us anyhow, and send us to go and to do his work in his power.
So doubting worshiper and worshiping doubter though I am, here I go.
Last week in Toronto, speaking at The Peoples Church, I had a heart-altering experience. I was speaking from the passage in John 5 where Jesus asks a man who has been “an invalid for thirty-eight years” if he wants to get well. The man doesn’t leap at the opportunity. Essentially, he whines.
Jesus heals him anyhow.
One of the puzzles of this story is, Why only one? John says that there was a “great multitude of disabled people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” lying about the place. Why didn’t Jesus heal them all, or at least a baker’s dozen?
In the first service, I wondered about that, and offered a few thoughts on it.
Then I attended the Friendship Class. The Friendship Class is for adults with physical and/or mental disabilities. About 15 came that day – I was told that sometimes up to 40 people come, but it was brutally cold that day and most of people in the class depend on public transportation and so many stayed home.
For the next half hour, I joined their fellowship, worship, testimony, and Bible discussion. None of it was polished. All of it was a bit chaotic. It was full of glitches and interruptions. The singing was mostly off key.
And yet I have never experienced the Kingdom of God so tangibly.
Everyone was utterly free of pretention. There was no posturing. There was not a whiff of envy or rivalry. There was love, and joy, and real pain, unconcealed, and a deep spirit of heartfelt welcome. The first thing many of the people did on meeting me was hug me, and lay their head on my chest. Some pinched my cheeks. It was disarming.
I went back to preach the second service, wrecked. What had I just witnessed?
I got to the place in my sermon when I asked the question, Why just one?
But this time I answered differently: “I’ve just come from visiting the Friendship Class. I stood in the presence of some of the most Christ-like people I’ve ever met. So I’m wondering if the reason Jesus only heals one man here is that he looks around at all the disabled people, and he only sees this one man who isn’t whole, so he helps him.”
Jesus pointed to the weakest, the smallest, the least in our midst, and told us to pay special attention: the kingdom belongs to such as these, he said.
I’m starting to get what he meant.