Weekend Wisdom / Bad Things Are Going to Happen. Be At Peace.

15 min. to read.

The world is feeling dark these days. Polarized, increasingly hostile attitudes prevail. Really scary things are happening. ISIS. Gun violence. Political discord. In times of anxiety and fear, our faith can get murky.

In John’s gospel, Jesus makes an unexpected promise. He says, “In this world you will have trouble.” But then, he turns this on it’s head. “I have told you this so that you can be at peace.”  How on earth does Jesus telling us about hard times lead to peace?

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It’s been pressing down like plates of iron, slowly crushing the air and hope our of me. Circumstances continue out of my control, swirling around me, telling me that my best plans mean so little in the face of the universe.

A few minutes on social media these days, and I came away angry, fearful, at the xenophobic surge I’m seeing in the people of my country, who seem so willing to exchange elevated values of freedom, equality, and hope for something that feels like security but is, in fact, more chains.

Even scanning through my feed of blogs that I read most days, my Internet age version of the morning paper, feels like a waste of time. So often I’ve found encouragement, mental challenge and hope, but recently all I can see is reactivity and anger. Well-known, influential leaders in the church are making public statements that seem to blithely ignore the teachings of Jesus, stoking fear even encouraging hatred.

The circumstances in my own little circle of influence are equally fearful.

A house we need to sell is just not selling. It’s been on the market for months. Finances are up in the air, adding monthly stress to figure out how to make ends meet. All this uncertainty is putting a lot of pressure on my marriage. We’re healing, we’re doing better than we have been, but we’d really like a break from the struggle. Have you been there?

Our church is in transition. It looks the most hopeful and focused that I’ve seen it in a few years, but we’re struggling to make ends meet. I’ve got this book contract, which is an incredible blessing and opportunity, but it’s also dialed up my anxiety in ways I never expected.

My natural reaction is to dig down inside the protective shell of isolation and inactivity. As more and more in my life feels scary and outside of my control, I find myself cynical and withdrawn, pessimistic. Slowly exchanging hope for hardness. In that place, I always wind up feeling alone. Anybody else?

I’m not sharing any of this with you to whine, or ask you to feel sorry for me. I don’t need you to do anything about any of this. I’m sharing it, because I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing I have to offer is vulnerable honesty, and this is honestly where I’ve found myself for the past month.

Unable to write. Feeling driven by the current, reactive. Feeling like my own candle is guttering… how can I shine more light, when my light feels dim?

(I promise… this whole thing isn’t going to be dreary and hopeless. Keep your hands and arms inside until the ride has come to a complete stop, OK?)

But doesn’t Jesus promise us security?

Christians, we have a tendency to see value in faith so long as it makes us feel better. If it works, it must be true.

Christians (at least, many like me) who have grown up in privileged and provided-for contexts have a hard time imagining what it’s like to follow Jesus in the midst of struggle and pain. (Yet that experience is by far the more common one in the history of the church.)

In the upper room, Jesus was meeting with his closest friends for the last time. Things were about to get painful, terrifying even. The future was going to shift from hopeful to bleak. These people that Jesus cared so much for were going to feel alone.

In the middle of Jesus’ lengthy teaching, he tells his friends that some hard things that are going to happen, and then he offers one of the strangest promises a God can make.

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world. – John 16:33

On a mug or a Facebook meme, that verse is delightful. Have peace. Be courageous. But in the chapter that ends with this verse, Jesus had promised that some pretty terrible things. Bad, decidedly-non-peaceful things. This was his promise!

“They will ban you from the synagogues,” Jesus said.

For the 1st century followers of Jesus, that was a terrifying prospect. They were going to be driven out of their heritage and community, all because of their faith in Jesus. They would be excluded. It happened to the 1st century Christians, and it has never stopped. It even happens even between Christians!

Here’e the promise: Sometimes because we’re committed to the way of Jesus, we will be considered unorthodox, even heretical. Sometimes, we will be excluded, told we don’t belong. We will be made to leave our comfortable places, where former friends and family will turn their backs. Jesus says this will happen; you can expect it. That’s not a peace-inducing promise!

“A time is coming,” Jesus said, “When anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God,”

For those first followers of Jesus, this referred to violent martyrdom for those who were unwilling to bow their head to the Roman system of power. But this violent behavior never stopped.

In some contexts, the persecutor is a radical Islamist in the clutches of violent politics justifying itself through fundamentalist religion, decapitating Christians to make a political point. In other contexts, the persecutors have been Christians blinded by the very same kind of fears, using religious labels to justify cruel behavior in order to feel more right, more safe, or more strong. Even killing other Christians!

For many of us, our context is less violent but still painful.

We fear being too conservative for our liberal community, or perhaps, too liberal for our conservative church, afraid that we will face anger, exclusion, judgement and shame. Not martyrdom, but painful.

We fear that speaking up, holding up a hand and saying, “Wait a minute, shouldn’t followers of Jesus be better than this?” will divide our family at Christmas time, or alienate us from brothers and sisters that we sit beside at church, or worse… summon the Internet Vigilantes of Orthodoxy. (Or maybe lose us a book contract with a Christian publisher.) Not martyrdom at all, but costly and painful in other ways.

Jesus’ promise? There will be people so blinded by their ideology, that they will confuse the truth for a lie, and in the name of a life-giving God threaten pain and death. Jesus says this will happen. You can count on it. Not a peace-inducing promise.

Quote - John 16-33

We might wish that Jesus followed up these predictions with a divine promise of protection.

We want God to give us divine information so that, like insider traders, we can take advantage of it, even use those hard times for our benefit. We want God to tell us that everything is going to be alright and that we and our children won’t have to face painful times. We want God to tell us that, as His special people, we’ll be scooped out of danger at the last second, right before any real harm could come to us.

But Jesus doesn’t make any of those promises. Not here. He says, “I have told you these things so that you may have peace.” When these things happen, I want you to remember that I told you this would happen.

But how on earth is that helpful?

Why bring up the bad things, Jesus?

I think Jesus is helping us in a very important way. Jesus says, “I told you these things so that you would have peace.”

When these things happen, when bad things, painful things happen, remember that Jesus said they would happen. Remembering this frees us from two powerful lies that undermine our faith and spiritual journey.

First, when bad things happen, some of us fall to the lie that they have happened because of us. These bad things happened because our faith is weak. Maybe we just aren’t good enough Christians. We think that somehow our sin incapacitates God’s love and blessing. And so, when we experience painful circumstances, some of us translate that pain into self-hatred, self-blame, and shame.

This lie isolates you. It keeps you from community. It keeps you from telling the honest truth about your circumstances. It keeps you alone, in the darkness of the belief that no one really understands, and if they actually knew you, they’d probably throw you out.

Second, when bad things happen, some of us fall to the lie that these things happened because God is asleep at the wheel. If God is real, then God isn’t paying attention to us. Maybe God is distant and uncaring. Or maybe there is no God at all.

This lie incapacitates you spiritually. It keeps you from listening for what God might be doing in your circumstances. It engenders frustration and bitterness because your spiritual expectations aren’t being met.

Both of these lies reinforce a single destructive belief. You are ultimately, and finally, alone.

And so when Jesus turned to close friends in that upper room, knowing that things were about to get hard, instead of patting them on the back and telling them that everything was going to be comfy-cozy, he told them about the bad things.

He said, in this world you will have trouble. Other translations say tribulation, even persecution. Jesus promises: bad things like this are going to happen to you.

But then he turns them around, he inoculates us against the bitterness that can come in the middle of our pain. “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

By telling us that bad things are going to happen, Jesus also tells us that we aren’t to blame for the bad things. They don’t happen because our faith is weak, or because we prayed in the wrong way.

By telling us that bad things are going to happen, Jesus also tells us that we are not alone. God knows our circumstances. God can see our painful situations. Jesus is with us in those moments. God, through Jesus, has experienced these very same things.

Don’t miss the hints of light in your darkness.

This week, I started coming out of this funk. I didn’t engineered the change. I didn’t wake up and decide to pull myself up by my bootstraps. I didn’t get a divine revelation that turned me around. And no, I don’t have seven steps to help you conquer fear. (#3 will blow your mind!) No…

This time, it was a sequence of tiny moments, like the faintest wisp of fresh air, cutting through the stuffy fog of my anxiety.

Last week a good friend left me an encouraging note on Facebook. This friend, because of their own life circumstances, I rarely get to see anymore, and I miss them with an ache. They reached out. They acknowledged the heaviness and reminded me of who they see me to be.

I’d been feeling alone, and at that moment reading that little message in the small blue messages window down in the corner of the screen, in that moment being known and loved brought tears to my eyes.

I remembered: I am not alone.

A few days before, someone who reads my blog—someone I’ve never met and never interacted with—sent me an email. They didn’t need anything. They weren’t challenging me on some theological point. They shared in great detail how a certain blog post of mine had radically shifted their thinking. It had opened them up in hope, where before they had been feeling fear. They just wanted me to know, to thank me.

Writing online can feel like shouting into outer space. So rarely is there any feedback (other than negative.) I’d been feeling like my efforts were just pushing a giant boulder uphill for no good reason. With that email, I was reminded of who I am, who God made me to be, and it grounded me.

I remembered: I am not alone.

Recently a visitor came to our church. We’ve been undergoing a massive transition these past three years. An overwhelming financial overhaul. Significant staff changes. A leadership model change. An evolving sense of who we are as a church. All of this has made Bridge City feel more like a creaky caravan than a stable destination. Some people have felt the discomfort and left. For those of us who have been here for the long haul, attachment to what things used to look like, who used to be there, how good things used to feel, has left many of us feeling heavy and sad.

And yet, there is a wonderful new thing growing in this transitional garden. It’s open and welcoming, it’s real, it’s not contrived or pre-programmed. It’s built of deeper collaboration and wider ownership. I think it is both nearer to Jesus’ ideal for us, and to our own core culture. But it can be hard to see this new thing amid all the emotional attachment to former things.

So, this visitor came. He didn’t know any of our past. He had no context other than a single visit to our worship service. When I asked him about his experience, he was so positive. But not only that, he was positive about the specific things that are exactly what God has been doing in our body. This stranger confirmed my hopes.

I remembered: I am not alone.

Jesus’ Promise? You are not alone. Be at Peace.

Jesus knew that his friends were going to feel alone, they were going to feel out of control, they were going to be afraid. Instead of telling them that nothing bad was going to happen, he told them the truth.

“Bad things, painful things are going to happen. But when they happen, remember that I told you about them. Remember and have peace.”

Peace because Jesus knows. Peace because even in the middle of our uncertainty, our fear and pain, we are not alone. But it’s an invitation to more than peace, I think.

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world. – John 16:33

Jesus’ words aren’t meant to call us to a stoic acceptance of difficulties. He closes by saying, “Be courageous. I have conquered the world.” He’s calling us to an attitude of courage, of heart, of passion in the face of unpredictable and overwhelming evil.

This isn’t some hopeless last stand. We can have courage because we know that we are not alone, and the One who is with us has already won. He has already faced down the darkest of evil. He has already walked through persecution and shame. He has already ended the eternal stranglehold of death. He has already conquered. And we are not alone.

Knowing we are not alone means we are not helpless. We may not be able to turn the tide of the violent circumstance, or painful experience. We may even be in that place and moment where our path is to go though the brutality. But we do not do it alone. And that means we do not do it without hope.

Knowing we are not alone means that we do not give in to cynicism. We may fear that the human heart is broken beyond repair, and fear that racism, sexism, xenophobia, greed, tribalism, and power hunger are destined to wipe out people of peace. But we do not face these circumstances alone, and we trust that the same Jesus who has captured our hearts and compelled us to a new way of living can do the same in hearts of others, no matter how broken.

Knowing we are not alone means that can extend welcome. We don’t have to give in to the fear that leads to wall-building, policy-defending, labeling and excluding. We know this is the way of the world, but we are agents of a new kingdom. A kingdom that exists without walls that doesn’t use fear or power to defend itself. A kingdom whose response is always to love more, to love again.

When life brings us painful circumstances, remember that we follow a king who chose the path of crucifixion in order to love more.

When we are faced with anger and exclusion and derision, we remember that we follow a king who accepted a crown of thorns and a royal cape in mockery, rather than force submission through domination by his power.

When we find ourselves in circumstances that are beyond our control, we remember that we follow a king who has already conquered, and because of that, we can have both peace and courage.

That means, regardless of the circumstance we find ourselves in, we can be at peace. More than that, we can bring peace. We can be peacemakers. Because we are not alone.

10 thoughts on “Weekend Wisdom / Bad Things Are Going to Happen. Be At Peace.

  1. Thank you for this. I am really getting a lot out of your articles. You’re messages must be Spirit inspired, they always speak to my circumstance at the exact time I read them. This one in particular is very encouraging. It’s easy to think we’ve done something to cause or deserve the “bad things” and very frustrating when we can’t fix them. Through this message I hear Jesus inviting me to look to Him rather than the circumstances. And He really uses you to open our eyes. I’ve enjoyed the weekly course as well. When I scroll through my emails I always stop when I see a post from your site. You’re not shouting into outer space 🙂 We hear you. God Bless.

    1. Kathy, thanks so much for the comment. I’m with you. We need to keep our eyes open, and not get distracted by the circumstances. And thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for your honesty! I know personally I often struggle with pride and the lie that I shouldn’t let others see me struggle because then I’ll lose my witness but we all struggle and it adds a depth of connectedness that we would not otherwise find if we always act “OK”. Thank you for your vulnerability!

    1. Hey Quinn, I know that struggle. My faith heritage places a high value on having a “good witness.” And while I understand how that’s of benefit, it also trained us to hide our weaknesses and never talk about our struggles. It led to church being a place where everyone pretended to be OK. I just don’t think that works!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. I am so grateful to have stumbled across this website! This post resonates strongly with how God has been leading and growing us for several years. This is a verse that God highlighted to me about seven years ago and I often revisit it during trying times. It was such an encouragement at the time! Just like you have said. The troubles I experience are not my ‘fault’, though some of my problems are the consequence of my sin. Even if all of my problems were/are my fault it doesn’t matter! Because Jesus has overcome! What a relief! He’s Lord of my life even when it looks like a complete train wreck, he is sovereign, infinitely powerful, and he redeems my life for his glory. It’s such good news!!!

    1. Welcome, Rochelle. I’m glad you found this site too! Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment. That means a lot to me.

      Like you I’m so thankful for this truth. It’s really been carrying me through lately.

  4. Hi Marc,

    Like you, I find the news pieces distressing, and have to remind myself that God IS in control, whether it seems like it or not. Your post came during a season of sadness in our household, with death of folks near and dear to us. Oldest daughter’s boyfriend lost his father after a tough battle with cancer. A grade school through high school classmate of mine lost his life after a two year battle with colon cancer, and we had just reconnected on social media a short five years ago. And the. This week an aunt succumbed after Alzheimer’s stole first her memory and then her bodily functions over many long difficult years. But God has them now for eternity. Sounds like a long time from this end of our near sighted telescope, doesn’t it?
    Thank you for sharing your struggle honestly. Prayers for your journey ahead.

    1. Oh Shauna, he heart goes out to you. So many losses in rapid succession. We were not made to face such loss. God’s perspective can be encouraging, but our hearts still grieve. Be gentle with yourself. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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