What is the Purpose of Pain and Suffering? Part I

This morning, what I’m going to be speaking on is a very difficult topic to speak on. It’s difficult because, one, you want it to be interesting, and two, you want it to be coherent, and it’s a very heavy and weighty subject.

Now, if there is a loving God, if He is kind and loving, why is there so much pain and evil and suffering in this life? And maybe it’s not important to you. Maybe you right now you’re at a point in your life where you’re kind of insulated from it, you haven’t had anything, you haven’t had any big waves come your way, but it will be important to you one day, I predict. I had lunch Wednesday with a guy who, a year ago, he said, life had never been better, and this past November he had to bury his 18-year-old son. And he said, now, every day I think about this. I think about the pain, and the hurt, and the why. You know, we’re all just a phone call away from a life-changing event, so this is a pertinent topic for each of us. Now, when I think back on my life and I think back to my college years, and even after my college years, there was a rock group that that I liked very much, and even though I never really bought their music, I’m not much of a music buff, but I love them, I still love their music, the Moody Blues. And they, ten years ago they did that famous concert at Red Rock with the Colorado Symphony, and it was shown on public television all over the world, and one of the songs they ended with was one of their most popular songs called, “Questions”.  I just listened to it yesterday, and the opening lyrics of the song go like this:

“Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking on the door, with a thousand million questions about hate and death and war? Because when we stop and look around us there’s nothing that we need, in a world of persecution that is whirling in its greed, why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking on the door?”

When you consider this issue of pain and suffering and evil and death, we all realize that these are issues we have to contend with, these are things we’re going to have to contend with in this life, whether intellectually, as we watch the news and see all the horrific events that go on in the world, or, at some point, in our own personal lives. As we have to experientially deal with pain and suffering over possibly the loss of a loved one. It could be anything, and thus, we consistently, I can’t tell you how often I find people asking the question, how could an all-powerful God allow this to happen? You know, particularly when involves the young, the innocent. I think it’s important to know that there is not a tidy answer to this. I can’t sit up here and give you a pat answer on why does God allow it. But, on the other hand, I think we’re given a number of clues that give us a good insight into this mystery, because it is a mystery, and I want to share with you some of the clues. This is going to take two different sessions, but Ravi Zacharias, who I’m going to quote in a minute, said, and he speaks on college campuses all over the world, he packs it out. He’s spoken to Harvard, Ohio State, he goes into Europe, speaking on the existence of God, and the issues that college students are dealing with, modern students are having to deal with, he says this is the number one question he gets. Why does God allow it? Before we start I want to share with you, after I spent really two months doing a lot of research on this, reading a number of books, and I want to share with you an observation that struck me after all this research, that I explored, and I want to share this by telling you a story. About nine months ago, after one of these breakfasts, a guy said, you know I’m interested in one of those investigative studies, and he, and the person that invited him, and myself, we met at my office, and in our first meeting, he told me you need to know up front, I’m agnostic. In other words, I don’t know that I believe in God at all. I’m not sure what I believe. I think the Bible is, you know, I’m not sure it’s a bunch of hocus-pocus, but I will say this, he was a curious agnostic because he asked good questions, and every time we’d meet, I’d give him something to read. He’d take it, he’d always read it, come back with more questions. We went through this entire series, and we were finished, and he said, well I want to keep meeting. And finally, about six months later, and I didn’t know whether I was making progress with him or not, after about six months, he comes in and proceeds to tell me, he says, you know, I believe all this stuff is true. I believe it’s true. I want to be a Christian. I believe the Bible, and you know, you could almost pick me up off the floor when he came in and shared that with me, but we kept meeting and he became a Christian.  He began to read, he began to read his Bible voraciously, very bright guy, very well-educated, very successful, and I’m sharing this because, just recently, he made a comment to me that’s very pertinent to what I want to share. He said, what I’m starting to realize about the Bible, and he says, it’s one of the reasons I believe it’s true, he says, so much of what I read is counter-intuitive. In other words, he says, this is nothing that a human being could ever come up with. And what he was saying is that so many of the things that I read about God’s truths runs counter to man’s natural intuition. In regard to certain issues, God’s ways and God’s perspective runs contrary to human reason. And we read where the prophet Isaiah, 2,500 years ago, writes these thoughts, and this was God speaking. He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In Psalms 50, God says, I’m not like you. We think often God is like us. He should think the way we think, and he should act the way we would act in a given situation, but he comes along and says, I’m not like you. I don’t think like you. I don’t reason like you, and I don’t see life the way you see it, and I share this with you because the one thing that strikes me is that maybe, just maybe, God’s perspective on pain and suffering, and death, are far different from our perspective. He sees it differently. His thoughts are so much higher than our thoughts. His ways are so much higher than our ways, and maybe, just maybe, His perspective is different, particularly when you consider that His perspective on time is so much different than ours. And as I’ve tried to point out, this is so crucial in this issue. I mean, I’m 49 years old, I mean, when I look at my life ahead, I have, God willing, 20, 25, maybe 35 years left, which some would consider a large amount of time, maybe a teenager wouldn’t, but my focus is on that slice of time that’s left. That’s where my life is focused, that’s where my vision is focused, and yet, you read in II Peter, God says, a thousand years to me is like one day. One day. A good example of what I’m trying to demonstrate here is this. Think of your children. I mean, I have a six-year-old, a four-and-a-half-year-old, and a three-year-old, and if you’re sitting there doing the math, yeah, I had my youngest when I was 46. But you know, my kids they just, as wonderful as I think they are, they don’t understand my ways. They don’t understand the boundaries I set on their lives. They don’t understand why I require them to do certain things they don’t want to do. Why I make them do certain distasteful things that they don’t want to have anything to do with. They particularly don’t understand why I have anything to do with inflicting pain on them, whether it’s taking them to the doctor to get their shots, to punish them, to tell them we’re not gonna watch TV for the next three days, you know, in their little lives, this is painful stuff, and they don’t understand it, but my wife and I, we have a different time perspective than they do. I mean, we’re concerned about them growing into adulthood. We’re concerned with the type of people they’re going to become. We operate from a different time perspective from our children. My six-year-old, for instance, his perspective on time is one day. I mean, all he can think about after school is what am I gonna do when I get home. He’s not thinking about tomorrow or the next day or the next day. So, often what we impose and bring into his life, he doesn’t get it, and many times, he doesn’t like it. We’re, in a sense, like our kids. We focus on the next 5, 10, 15 years. God’s time horizon is eternity. I mean, God, when he looks at each of our, the most important thing to Him is our eternal well-being. Even if you’re an atheist, his time horizon is eternity, so, I think it’s important to know that God does, in fact, have a different perspective on pain and suffering than we do, particularly when you consider the issue of time.

I would also share with you the fact that it’s amazing how us, living in the modern world, in this the affluent Western world have shifted our perspective on suffering over the last 100 years. A guy named Philip Yancey wrote a book, Where is God When it Hurts? And he shares this thought on how our view of suffering has changed. He says, “Books on the problem of pain divide neatly into two groupings. The older ones by people like Thomas Aquinas, Bunyan, John Donne, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, ungrudgingly accept pain and suffering as God’s useful agents. These authors do not question God’s actions. They merely try to justify the ways of God to man. The authors wrote with confidence as if the sheer force of their reasoning could calm emotional responses to suffering. Modern books on pain make a sharp contrast. Their authors assume that the amount of evil and suffering in the world cannot be matched with the traditional view of a good and loving God. God is thus bumped from a friend of the court position, to the box reserved for the defendant. How can you possibly justify yourself, God? these angry moderns seem to say. Many of them adjust their notion of God either by redefining his love, or by questioning his power to control evil. When you read the two categories of books side by side, the change in tone between us today and those who lived 100 to 200 years ago, the change in tone is quite striking. It’s as if we in the modern times think we have a corner on the suffering market.

Do we forget that Luther and Calvin lived in a world without ether and penicillin, when life expectancy averaged 30 years, and that Bunyan and Donne wrote their greatest works respectively, in a jail and a bubonic plague quarantine room? Ironically, the modern authors, the skeptics who write about pain and God, who live in princely comfort toil in climate controlled offices, and hoard elixirs in their medicine cabinets, are the ones who are smoldering with rage.”

What I’d like to do is take a minute and consider some of the questions that are naturally raised when we see dreadful suffering among our fellow man. And I know that there are those in this room who have experienced a lot of pain in their lives. Maybe you’re experiencing right now, or maybe you will in the future, and when it happens, there are often, there are always questions that arise, and there’s three or four common ones, and I want to talk about them just for a minute, and then I’m gonna give you an application to take home to think about.

The first and most obvious question is, I can’t believe that there’s a kind and loving God when you consider the Holocaust, when you consider what Stalin did in Russia, killing 20 million people, when you consider what happened on 9/11, I just can’t buy the fact that there is a loving sovereign God that’s out there. This is the number one question that skeptics ask in questioning a belief in God, and it’s the primary basis of their skepticism. Ravi Zacharias, I mentioned a minute ago, a philosopher who speaks all over the world, he packs it out, and he goes, and he speaks, usually, on the issue of the existence of God, deals with issues like pain and suffering, is Christianity valid in a world of all the religions that are around us, and then, after 45 minutes, he opens it up, to usually, he says, a fairly hostile crowd who asks questions. He was speaking at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and he had just spoken on the existence of God, and he said immediately, when I was finished and opened up for questions and answers, a student’s shot up out of his seat and said how can there possibly be an all-powerful and loving God when there’s so much evil and so much wickedness and suffering in this world? How can you stand up there in front of an intelligent audience and tell us an all-powerful and loving God exists? Then Ravi says, you could tell this guy was a very angry young man who had experienced some kind of pain in his life. Ravi responded, sir I’ll be delighted to answer your question if you’ll first try to explain it to me. So, I’m gonna need to ask you some questions in order for you to justify your question. He said, let me ask you this. When you say there’s such a thing as evil, aren’t you assuming there’s such a thing as good? And the student responded, yeah, you’re right. Ravi said, but when you say there’s such a thing as good aren’t you also assuming there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil? He thought about it for a second, and responded, yeah, I suppose so. But sir, Ravi said to him, if you assume there’s a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver, and that is who you’re trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there is no moral lawgiver, there’s no moral law, and if there is no moral law, there is no good, and if there is no good, there is no evil, so what’s your question? And everybody was just stunned, and the guy stood back, and he said, well sir, what then am I asking you? Because what Ravi was saying is this guy, as so often happens, had not really thought through the ramifications of the question. If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’s classic, this is the main argument he makes for the existence of God. That’s the irony of it. This is somewhere that people say, I can’t believe in God because of pain, suffering, and evil, and he turns it around, this brilliant Oxford scholar, and says, this is the reason you should believe in God. He says, there is this certain behavior we all agree we ought to follow.  Fair play, unselfishness, courage, honesty, truthfulness, you know, we expect other people to treat us that way don’t we? And he says where do we get this sense of oughtness? Why do we expect people to treat us that way? Where did this idea of a moral law come from? He said, there’s someone or something that has to stand behind it to give it to us. He said, somebody put that in our minds, in our hearts. We don’t necessarily follow it, but we recognize it. He says, that someone has to be God. That’s what’s called the moral argument for the existence of God, so, in one sense, you see the irony, this argument against God’s existence can be turned around and employed as a very powerful argument for, in fact, His existence.

A second question that’s common, and maybe you’ve thought of it, as well, is why didn’t God design us in such a way that we can experience pleasure but not pain? I mean, why can’t we have the good life without the bad? Why can’t have we have the pleasure, and the sweetness, and the happiness, but no pain, no suffering? You know, again, I think if that’s a question you thought of, it it’s we don’t think these things out very clearly, because physical pain, as Yancey says, is the gift from God that nobody seems to want. He says, “It bears the mark of creative genius. It should be viewed as a communication network, a warning system. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Paul Brand. He was a famous hand surgeon; he was an orthopedic surgeon, but he was famous in operating on hands, and he took that specialty, and he spent most of his time, most of his life, working with leprosy, first in India, and then he came to the United States and worked at the only leper colony, which was in Louisiana. I’m not even sure whether he’s still alive, but he was, most people consider him an expert on pain, physical pain. And this is what he has to say about it. He says, “We doctors experience a rude awakening after medical school. After studying the marvels of the human body, suddenly I was thrust into a position, much like the complaint desk of a department store. Not once did a person visit my office to express appreciation for a beautifully functioning kidney or lung. They came to complain about something that was not working properly. Only later did I realize that the very things they complained about were their greatest allies. Most people view pain as an enemy, yet as my leprosy patients prove, it forces us to pay attention to threats against our bodies. Without it, heart attacks, strokes, ruptured appendix, stomach ulcers, would all occur without any warning.  Who would ever visit a doctor apart from pain’s warnings?” He says a lot about the fact that pain is a gift that God gives us to protect ourselves. He says, “There are people who don’t have any pain, physically, they don’t experience it at all. Those are people who have leprosy.” They don’t experience any physical pain, and that’s why, and I’ve never seen a leper, but in reading Brand, he says that’s why they don’t have, their fingers are down, they have nubs. When they grab a door, they don’t know how hard they’re grabbing it. They can break their fingers because they grab it so hard, or opening a jar that’s stuck, or putting their hand in water. They don’t know whether it’s hot or cold, or if they have blisters on their feet, they have no idea. He says, over time their bodies waste away, because they don’t have pain to protect them. He says, lepers, people with leprosy, don’t experience any physical pain in this life, but they suffer greatly. Physical pain is important to us to stay healthy.

Now, what about emotional pain? I don’t think anybody would suggest that God should make us so that we don’t experience any emotional pain. You lose your child, no big deal. You lose your spouse, no big deal. No compassion. I mean, to be zombie-like, is that what we would suggest? I don’t think anybody would suggest that’s a way to live your life, because, in reality what we’re asking God to do is remove from us the ability to love and to have compassion. C.S. Lewis says, “If you don’t want to experience emotional pain in this life, don’t ever love, don’t even get a dog, that’s the way to insulate yourself from ever experiencing pain in this life.” So, ironically, pain and suffering are a byproduct of two great gifts that God gives us. One, physical pain, as a system to protect us, and two, the ability to love and have compassion and to care for people deeply. That’s the basis of pain and suffering in life.

Now, the final question that is asked, and maybe, I thought about this, why could God not have designed us in such a way that we could not carry out evil deeds? Have you ever thought about that? Why couldn’t we be made in such a way, where God gives us a free will which we all desire greatly, the freedom to make our own choices in life, but why couldn’t He program us in such a way that we couldn’t do things that are evil, we couldn’t abuse the freedom that we have? Why couldn’t He make us that way, where we don’t have the ability to do evil or make mistakes? I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this, but, guys, that’s a nonsense statement. You have two mutually exclusive statement. On the one hand, you say I want the freedom to choose what I want in life, but I want to be programmed so that there are certain choices I can’t make. You see that’s logically impossible. It’s like asking God to make square circles. You know, that’s nonsense, and so, this idea of free will is so important, it’s so important if you’re going to have a life where there’s the potential to truly love.

About 15 years ago, a guy by the name of A.E. Wilder-Smith came to Birmingham, probably one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever heard speak, I’m not even sure if he’s still alive, he’s from Australia, and he had multiple PhDs. He’s a scientist, he had written over 20 books, and while he was here, he went down and had all kind of debates with professors at UAB. He wrote this little book called, Why Does God Allow It? He worked for NATO for a number of years. Let me read you what he says, because this, I think, provides pretty good insight in this. He said, “Because God, being love, decided to create the possibility of true love among men, He had to take the chance that his intended partners in love would not love at all. God’s eternal plan is to set up a kingdom of real love on earth and in heaven, but reaching this involves a built-in risk, that of hate and vice arising, instead of love and virtue. It is usually the person who has not considered this aspect of love who wants God to turn into a dictator and use brute force to forbid all the evil that exists, but this person doesn’t seem to realize that if He did, He would, at the same time, destroy all possibility of true love in our world. In order to better understand the process of falling in love,” and I think most of you can relate to this, he says, “we must observe a few points. First, the young man must court the girl. If force or impatience takes the place of courting, joy and love will cease. They are often replaced by hate and misery. The whole structure of love is built on mutual consent and total respect for each partner’s character and freedom of will. In other words, the basis of human love is complete freedom to love, absolute free will on the part of both partners to either give or withhold their affection from one another. Without this freedom, true love, real legitimate love, is impossible.” And then, this is the final observation, this is, I think this is a great insight, he says, “Thus, the very existence of evil in this world, which we complain about, the very existence of evil in this world created by an almighty and loving God, demonstrates that the good and the virtues in it are really genuine. The love in it is true love and nothing else.” And listen to this. He says, “The presence of real evil in God’s world is evidence enough that God is truly a God of real love.” Again, a paradox on the ways of God.

Most of the suffering in life is a result of two principles that God has built into this world. Number one, a physical world that runs according to consistent natural laws, fixed laws. This is what gives life order, and stability, and harmony. And the second thing He gives us is human freedom, so that love can exist. Both of these are essential if life is to be good and to be meaningful. Let me read to you what Philip Yancey says about this. He says, “Because of these two principles that I’ve just mentioned, God had also allowed for the possibility of their abuse. For example, water proves useful to us and all creation because of its softness, it’s liquid state, and its specific gravity, yet those very properties open up it’s rather disagreeable capacity to drown us, or even more alarming possibility, that we might drown somebody else. Take another example from wood. It bears the fruit of trees, supports leaves to provide shade, and shelters birds and squirrels. Even when taken from the tree, wood is valuable. We use it as fuel to warm ourselves and as construction material to build houses and furniture. The essential properties of wood – hardness, unpliability, flammability, make possible these useful functions, but as soon as you plant a tree with these properties in the world, the people, by free human beings, you introduce the possibility of abuse. A free man may pick up a chunk of wood and take advantage of its firmness by bashing the head of another man. God could, I suppose, reach down each time and transform the properties of wood into those of a sponge so that the club would bounce off lightly, but that is not what He is about in the world. He has set into motion fixed laws that can be perverted to evil by our misguided freedom.”

One of the best things I may read to you is what I’m gonna read to you from Dr. John Hick, who wrote this famous work called, Philosophy of Religion, and he tried to envision Utopia. He says, let’s try to envision life with no pain, with no suffering. What kind of world would we create? What kind of world would it be? Listen to what he says. “Suppose, contrary to fact, that this world was a paradise from which all possibility of pain and suffering were excluded. The consequences would be very far-reaching. For example, no one would ever injure anyone else. The murderer’s knife would turn to paper, or his bullets into the thin air, the bank’s safe robbed of a million dollars, would miraculously become filled with another million dollars. Fraud, deceit, conspiracy, and treason would somehow always leave the fabric of society undamaged. Again, no one would ever be injured by accident. The mountain climber, the steeple jack, or the playing child falling from a height would float unharmed to the ground. The reckless driver would never meet with disaster, there will be no need to work. There would be no call to be concerned for others in time of need or danger for in such a world, there could be no real needs or dangers. To make possible this continental series of individual adjustments, nature would have to work special providences instead of running according to general laws, which men must learn to respect on penalty of pain and death. The laws of nature would have to be extremely flexible. Sometimes an object would be hard and solid, sometimes it would be soft. One can at least begin to imagine such a world. It is evident that our present ethical concept would have no meaning at all. If, for example, the notion of harming someone is an essential element in the concept of wrong action, in this new hedonistic paradise, there could be no wrong actions, nor any right actions, in distinction from wrong. Courage and fortitude would have no point in an environment in which there is, by definition, no danger or difficulty. Generosity, kindness, the agape aspect of love, prudence, unselfishness, and all other ethical notions which presuppose life in a stable environment, cannot even be formed. Consequently, such a world, however well it might promote pleasure, would be very ill-adapted for the development of the moral qualities of human personality. In relation to this purpose, it would be the worst of all possible worlds.”

I want to give you a quick conclusion and an application, something I want you to take home to think about, and I’m going to mention what I’ll talk about next time. This is my conclusion. God did not create evil. He created the possibility of evil by giving us freedom. You know, evil is nothing more than the corruption of that which God intended to be good. But this is the contention I want to make, and ask you to think about and we’ll talk about next time. God, because He is a God of love, can take evil, can take pain, can take suffering, and He can use it purposefully in our lives. And so, the question that I would ask you to think about is, is there purpose in suffering? Since God’s perspective is different from ours, is there, and can there, be purpose in suffering? I want to consider that next time. I think I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t share this thought, because some of you may be wondering about this. I do believe that God is sovereign over all of life. That is the Biblical position, and that He can intervene when He chooses. He can displace his fixed laws, and man’s free will, that’s what miracles are, and, of course, some people, naturally will do, ‘you think miracles still take place?’ I personally would say yes, but, you know, there may be all kind of disasters that are averted, and avoided, because God intervenes, and we don’t even know it. We don’t even know it. But then the question comes up, well, why didn’t He eliminate Hitler? He could have. Why didn’t He get rid of Stalin? I don’t know if ya’ll saw in Forbes Magazine, there’s a brand-new book out about Stalin. He killed over 20 million people. He got pleasure from killing people. Why didn’t He eliminate Stalin? Why did He even let him come into being? Why didn’t he thwart the plans of those terrorists on September 11th? He could have. Why didn’t He do it? And, of course, my answer is, I don’t know. I really don’t know. That’s why I said there is not a complete perfect answer to this very difficult issue, but I do believe this, that one day, we will know. Jesus says in Mark 4:22, everything hidden, and everything that’s not understood, will one day be revealed and come to light.

But I think the most important thing that I can, and the most important truth I can leave with you, is what I want to share with you right now. It will take about five minutes. Paul Brand, the guy that I mentioned just a minute ago, makes an interesting observation. He says, “My professional life has revolved around the theme of pain, and by living in different cultures, I’ve observed at close hand diverse attitudes towards it. My life divides roughly into thirds. Twenty-seven years in India, 25 years in England, and more than 27 years in the United States, and from each society, I’ve learned something new about pain. I served my medical internship in London during the most harrowing days and nights of the Blitz when the Luftwaffe was pounding a proud city into rubble. Physical hardship was a constant companion, the focal point of nearly every conversation and front-page headline, yet I’ve never lived among people so buoyant, and now, I read that 60% of Londoners who lived through the Blitz remember it as the happiest periods of their life. After the war, I moved to India just as the partition was tearing the nation apart. In that land of poverty and omnipresent suffering, I learned that pain can be borne with dignity and calm acceptance. It is there, too, that I began treating leprosy patients, social pariahs whose tragedy stems from the absence of physical pain. Later, in the United States, a nation whose war for independence was fought, in part, to guarantee a right to the pursuit of happiness, I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering, and far more traumatized by it. Each of these groups of people, Londoners who suffered gladly for a cause, Indians who expected suffering and learned not to fear it, and Americans, who suffered less but feared it more, helped to form my outlook on this mysterious fact of human existence. Most of us,” and this is what I want to say to you, “most of us will, one day, face severe pain in our lives. I’m convinced that the attitude we cultivate, in advance, may well determine how suffering will affect us when it does strike.”

In one sense, Jesus tells us the very same thing in the Sermon on the Mount when He tells us in Matthew chapter 7, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts upon them may be compared to a wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and burst against that house, and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock, and everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act upon them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and burst against that house and it fell, and great was its fall.” Christ is telling us that each one of us, every single one of us in this room, is building our lives upon some foundation. We’re all looking for something to anchor our lives, and He says we should, because we’re being warned. In one sense, this is a prophecy to each of us. The storms in life are going to come our way. Whether you have built your life on solid rock, or whether it’s built on, it’s going to come, and He’s telling us, and warning us in advance.

As I was preparing, I was reading in some notes, and was reminded of that song, most people consider it Elton John’s greatest song, and it’s one that’s probably made him more money. That tribute that he wrote for Marilyn Monroe called, “Goodbye, Norma Jean”. And, as he looked back on the life of that goddess, these are the words that I thought about. It says, “It seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain sets in.” Do we know who to cling to when the rain sets in? When the storms in life come our way? Less than a year ago, I read this parable, here at the Club, and it’s so pertinent to this, as I close, that I’m going to read it again because, most of you, or are a lot of you, haven’t heard it, and those who have heard it, it’s worth hearing again. If you remember, it’s that it’s “The Parable of the Persona”.

“Once, a very prosperous man decided to build for himself a grand yacht. His intention was that it would be the grandest, the most talked about boat that ever sailed from the harbor of the boat club of which he was a member, thus, he determined to spare no expense or effort. As he built, the man outfitted his craft with colorful sails, complex rigging, and comfortable appointments and conveniences in its cabin. The decks were made from beautiful teak wood, all the fittings were custom made of polished brass, and on the stern, painted in gold letters, readable from a considerable distance, was the name of the boat, “The Persona.” As he built The Persona, the man could not resist fantasizing upon the anticipated admiration and applause from club members at the launching of his new boat. In fact, the more he thought about the praise that was soon to come, the more time and attention he gave to those aspects of the boat’s appearance that would attract the crowd and intensify excitement. Now, and this seems reasonable, because no one would ever see the underside of The Persona, the man saw little need to be concerned about the boat’s keel, or for that matter, anything that had to do with the issue of properly distributed weight or ballast. Experienced sailors might wince at this, but one must remember that the boat builder was acting with the perceptions of the crowd in his mind, not the seaworthiness of the vessel. You see, seaworthiness seems not an important issue while in drydock, when things are going well. On one of those occasions, when he was sorting out his priorities of time and resources, he said to himself, why should I spend money or time on what is out of everybody else’s sight? When I listen to the conversations of people at the club, I heard them praising only what they can see I can never remember anyone admiring the underside of a boat. Instead I sensed that my yachting colleagues really find exciting the color and shape of the boat sails, its brass fittings, its cabin, and creatures of comfort, decks and wood texture, speed, and the skill that wins this the Sunday afternoon regattas, so driven by such reasoning, the man built his boat, and everything that would be visible to the people, soon begin to gleam with excellence, but things that would be invisible when the boat entered the water were generally ignored. People didn’t seem to take notice of this, or, if they did, they made no comment. The builder’s suspicions were correct. The people of the boat club understood and appreciated the sails, the riggings, the decks, the brass, and staterooms, and what they saw, they praised. Sometimes he overheard people say that his efforts to build the grandest boat in the history of the club would someday result in his selection as Commodore. When the day came for the boat’s maiden voyage, the people of the club joined him at dockside. A bottle of champagne was broken over the bow, and the moment came for the man to set sail. As the breeze filled the sails and pushed The Persona from the club’s harbor, he stood at the helm and heard what he’d anticipated for years – the cheers and well-wishers of envious admirers who said to one another, our club has never seen a grander boat than this. This man will make us the talk of the yachting world. There were some boat owners who joined him sailing on either side and forming a spectacular flotilla as they moved out beyond the breakwater and into this ocean. Soon, the beautiful Persona was merely a blip on the horizon as it cut through the swells. Its builder and owner gripped the rudder with a feeling of fierce pride. What he had accomplished! He was seized with an increasing rush of confidence at everything – the boat, his future as a boat club member, and probably, as Commodore, and even the ocean was his to control. But a few miles out to sea, a storm arose, not a hurricane, but not a squall either. There were sudden wind gusts in excess of 40 knots, waves above 15 feet. The Persona began to shudder, and water swept over the sides, bad things began to happen, and the poise of the captain begin to waver. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t his after all. Within minutes, the Persona’s colorful sails were in shreds, and the splendid mast was splintered in pieces, and the rigging was unceremoniously draped all over the bow, the teak wood decks and the lavishly appointed cabins were awash with water, and then, before the man could prepare himself, a wave bigger than anything he’d ever seen, hurled down upon The Persona and the boat capsized.”

Now this is important.

“Most boats would have righted themselves after such a battery. The Persona did not. Why? Because its builder had ignored the importance of what was below the waterline. There was no weight there. In a moment when a well-designed keel, and adequate ballast might have saved the ship, they were nowhere to be found. The man had concerned himself with the appearance of things, and not enough with resilience and stability in the secret unseen places where storms are withstood. Furthermore, because the foolish man had such confidence in his sailing abilities, he never contemplated the possibility of a situation he could not manage, and that’s why later investigations revealed that there were no rescue devices aboard, rafts, lifejackets, emergency radios, and the result of this mixture of poor planning and blind pride, the foolish man was lost at sea. Only that when the wreckage of The Persona was washed ashore, did the drowned man’s boat club friends discover all this. They said, only a fool would design and build a boat like this, much less sail in it. The foolish man was never found. Today, when people speak of him, which is rare, they comment, not upon the initial success of the man or upon the beauty of his boat, but only upon the silliness of putting out into the ocean, where storms are sudden and violent, and doing it with a boat that was really never built for anything else but the vanity of its builder, and the praise of its spectators. It was in such conversations that the owner of The Persona, whose name has long been forgotten, became known as simply the foolish man.”

Now the one who values wisdom will ask well what does the story mean, and he soon will discover that the only source of true strength in this life, and the person who cares little for wisdom will dismiss the story, and likely go out and construct something similar to this foolish man’s Persona, but you know the words that seemed to capture the essence of this parable? I want to read them, just one sentence, one more time. And apply this to our lives.

“In a moment when a well-designed keel and adequate ballast might have saved the ship, they were nowhere to be found. The man had concerned himself with the appearance of things, and not enough with resilience and stability in the secret unseen places where storms are withstood.”  You know where the storms of life are withstood in the life of a man? In his soul? This is where the storms of life are withstood, and this is why Jesus says, the man who has Him, who builds his life on Him, and His words, and His teachings, who builds his life on Him, and has Him at the core of his being, in Hebrews it says, this man has an anchor for his soul, and we need an anchor for our souls, to withstand the storms in life that Jesus says are going to come.

I started off with that song from the Moody Blues, “Questions”. Why do we never get an answer, we’re knocking on the door, we asked for answers about death and pain and sorrow and suffering, but we never get an answer, but what’s interesting about this song, listen to the final words, these are the words that close the song, and I don’t anything about the guy who wrote it.

“I’m looking for someone to change my life; I’m looking for a miracle in my life.”

Guys, I would suggest this someone is Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God.

Let’s close in prayer. Father we do thank You for just this time together, Lord, and I thank You for all the friendships that exist in this room, just all the wonderful relationships You’ve blessed our lives with. We thank You also that You have given us truth, that You’ve given us understanding, You’ve given us wisdom to get a glimpse into the mystery of evil, and suffering, and pain, and yet, we thank You, Father, that You’re there for us, that we can build our lives upon solid rock to withstand the storms of life. I pray that You would use this time in our lives as we reflect on the things that You shared with us. And we pray these things in Christ’s name. Amen.

Listen to Part 2

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