As I’ve mentioned before, preachers, and Christians generally, often like to do violence to verses of scripture by yanking them out of their context and making them say, basically, whatever they want them to say.
But here’s a portion of scripture you’ll rarely hear a sermon about:
In this world, you will have trouble.
Jesus said this, and it’s recorded in John 16:33.
Now, before you tell me I need to read the surrounding context (which is true), let’s just a take a moment here.
The setting is the Last Supper, and Jesus is talking to his disciples. Since it’s the last opportunity he’ll get to talk to them before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, we can safely assume he’s choosing his words carefully. Time is short, and he knows the disciples will think back to this evening and pore over everything he’s said, so he isn’t wasting his words on anything of less than paramount importance.
And right in the middle of this extended heart-to-heart with his closest associates, this is what Jesus says: you will have trouble.
It seems to me that, as statements go, this one is pretty bald and unambiguous. No ifs. No buts. No maybes. No “some of you”. You are going to have trouble. All of you. Jesus doesn’t specify when, or what kind of trouble. But of this you can be sure: trouble is coming.
There’s no way to wrap this up nicely and make it sound like something good. Whatever form trouble may take, it’s never something we look forward to or welcome.
The only reason I labour this is that it seems to me that many Christians want to believe in a version of Christianity in which this statement by Jesus has no place. They believe that, because they’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer, go to church and try to be nice, they are now entitled to expect protection from hardship. When trouble does come knocking at their door, they interpret it either as an anomaly – something that was never meant to happen – or perhaps even as some kind of demonic attack. Or they try to identify what it is that they’ve done wrong – which bit of their contract with God they’ve failed to fulfil – in order to cause this misfortune to come upon them.
How do so many Christians come to see things this way? Well, since you asked, here’s my take. We’re so desperate to get people to “accept Jesus into their heart” and join our church that we very often sell them a sugar-coated version of reality that is, in fact, no more than a fantasy. (I touched on this in my post Reality or fantasy?) But the basic problem is this: Jesus’ words above are true, and it’s only a matter of time before trouble will come bursting in. For a believer who has made a commitment to Jesus on a promise of a peaceful, trouble-free passage through life, this is bound to come as a shock and a challenge to their faith.
Listen: you are going to have trouble. One translation says “you will have many trials and sorrows”. Any version of the gospel or of the Christian life in general that offers you the hope of a tranquil, undisturbed life in this age is built on lies.
If you recognise this reality up front, you won’t have to go through life trying to deny trouble when it hits you, or trying to work out how God could possibly have let this happen.
OK, since I began by mentioning the importance of context, let’s finish off by looking at the context of Jesus’ statement.
Jesus has just spent four chapters telling his disciples how he’s going to be betrayed and denied, how he is the only way to the Father and the true vine, how he’s going to send the Holy Spirit, and how the world hates him and will hate those who choose to follow him. He’s about to pray for his disciples and all those who will come after them, but before he does, this is what he says:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Did you notice what happened there? Jesus has, among other things, been telling his friends about how the world will hate and reject them, and yet he says the reason he’s been telling them these things is so that in him they might have peace. You’d think he might try to reassure his disciples by shielding them from trouble. But he recognises that the way to peace is not to try to minimise, cover up or spiritualise away the harsh realities of life in this world.
Jesus’ message of peace is not “Come to me and I’ll protect you from all the storms of life”; his message is “Come to me, and when the storms hit, I will be with you”.
The last thing Jesus says before launching into his great prayer of John 17 is “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” Notice that he’s not telling his disciples to overcome the world all by themselves. He’s asking them to trust him because he’s already done it. And bear in mind that this is before he goes to the cross and cries “It is finished!”
What can he mean?
Well, since he’s just told his disciples they can be sure they’re going to face trouble, one thing he clearly doesn’t mean is that the way he’s overcome the world is by securing a trouble-free life for his followers.
I think what he means is this: through his own life, he has demonstrated that there is a way to confront and navigate the troubles of this world without fear or denial. Jesus faced many things in his life; he was no stranger to poverty, misunderstanding, rejection and opposition. And here in John 16, he’s about to face the ultimate kind of trouble: a cruel and shameful death at the hands of brutal executioners. But through it all, he has maintained absolute peace, composure and dignity.
So what’s Jesus’ secret?
I think it’s simply that he was absolutely certain of his Father’s loving presence with him through all the events of his life. He had an unshakeable faith that God was with him, and that no circumstance or event, no matter how dire, would ever change that. And his identity was deeply rooted in his union with the Father. But this didn’t make him a dreamer who tried to float above reality and pretend he was out of reach of trouble; it meant he was right there in the boat when the storm came, and he was able to command it, “Peace, be still!”
When we so long for just a little peace in this troubled world, it can seem highly counter-intuitive to listen to Jesus telling us to expect trouble. But denial is no one’s friend – indeed, psychologists know that it’s a leading cause of stress.
Jesus calls us to be in no doubt that trouble is coming. But then he calls us to be equally certain that he has overcome the world. Our faith is not in our ability to withstand trouble. Our faith is in the One who has overcome, and who has promised to be with us always, to the very end of the age.
[ Image: Jeremy Sternberg ]