Thérèse of Lisieux on her sickbed near the cloister infirmary door on August 30, 1897, with one month to live.
“You duped me, Lord. You tricked me, coerced me, seized and overpowered me. You were too strong for me. You won and I lost. Now I’m a laughingstock. Everyone mocks me, makes fun of me all day long.”
This is Jeremiah’s complaint against God, and he wasn’t the first or the last person to feel that way. Some of you may know the famous punchline of the story about Saint Teresa of Avila’s bad day on the road. You might have heard that Teresa was thrown from a horse-drawn carriage and fell in a mud puddle — but it seems the real story was much more harrowing.
Teresa was traveling from Avila to Burgos. It was winter, and her health was bad. On the road she developed a fever; her throat was badly inflamed. The roads were terrible: snow, icy winds. At one point the road was completely covered in flood waters from nearby rivers swollen with snow. The carriage wasn’t safe, so Teresa got out and began wading through the flood waters. But the current was so strong that she was swept off her feet and almost carried away.
“Oh my Lord,” Teresa cried desperately, “when will you stop scattering obstacles in our path?”
And the Lord answered her, “Do not complain, daughter, for it is ever thus that I treat my friends.”
And that’s when Teresa gave her famous response: “Ah, Lord, and that is also why you have so few!”
Lord, why do you treat your friends this way? Why do hardships rise around us like flood waters too strong for us, threatening to carry us away?
You know where a lot of people have been feeling that way for a while, right? Southeastern Texas. Houston; Beaumont and Port Arthur.
And that’s just the U.S. Other countries hit by flooding haven’t gotten the same media attention, but they’ve been far harder hit. Over 1,200 killed by flooding in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The worst monsoon season they’ve seen in decades. In Africa, in Sierra Leone, over 1,000 have been killed by mudslides and flooding after torrential rainfall. There’s also been tremendous rains and flooding in Istanbul, Turkey. And now we have Hurricane Irma threatening.
And the impact of these disasters isn’t over when the flood waters recede. People will be trying to rebuild their lives in some cases for years to come.
Lord, why do you treat your friends this way? Why not just, you know, the people who deserve it? If someone’s a good person, why should terrible things happen to them? God forbid, right?
That’s what Simon Peter says: “God forbid anything terrible should happen to you, Lord!” And Jesus turns on him with that savage rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You’re not thinking like God any more, you’re thinking like human beings.” (What a comedown from “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”!)
“I am going to suffer and die,” Jesus tells his disciples, “and if you want to follow me, you have to be willing to accept suffering as well, to carry your cross.”
Okay, well, it’s one thing to say we have to accept persecution, or even martyrdom, like Jesus and Jeremiah — and Simon Peter, eventually. But what about plain old suffering and problems that just seem to fall out of the sky? What about sickness? What about aches and pains? What about struggling to pay the bills? Especially bills you weren’t expecting — a major appliance breaking, a car repair, a car accident? Medical bills, hospitalization? What about unemployment or underemployment? What about depression and anxiety and mental illness?
Why does God let these things happen to us? Why do hardships rise around us like flood waters? Is there a person in this church who hasn’t felt that way sometimes? Maybe some feel that way right now, or maybe just all the time?
Health and wealth
There are preachers who will tell you that it’s not God’s will for believers to be sick or poor or to suffer these kinds of things. If you’ve been following the news from Houston, you might have seen criticism and outrage directed at the pastor of one of the largest churches in America, Joel Osteen, in Houston where Osteen was born. People were saying that Osteen’s church didn’t open its doors to people during the crisis. And Osteen has tried to defend himself; it’s not entirely clear what the real story is.
But the bigger problem with Joel Osteen is that he teaches that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy. If you have faith, God will fix all your problems. Your situation will change for the better. You’ll get promotions at work. Your cancer will be cured. All your dreams will come true.
Wouldn’t that be nice.
This is called prosperity theology, or “health-and-wealth gospel,” or “word of faith” teaching, and it’s a lie from the pit of hell. Joel Osteen is a false teacher, a fraud, a con artist who spiritually abuses people — one of many. Other famous and influential prosperity preachers who’ve been in the news recently include Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Paula White, Mark Burns and Joyce Meyer. These are pastors worth millions or even tens of millions of dollars, with private jets, all sorts of things, who say it worked for them and it can work for you. And of course because God wants you to be successful, if you are successful, it proves you have God’s blessing.
Thank God the Catholic Church exalts saints who endured immense suffering throughout their lives, not just from persecution, but from physical or mental hardships. Padre Pio, who suffered from many serious physical ailments all his life; Thérèse of Lisieux, who was often sick as a child and who suffered horribly for months on end from the tuberculosis that took her life; Mother Teresa, John Vianney and many others who suffered from interior darkness much of their lives.
Build on the rock
Some suffering is self-inflicted. If you’re prone to losing your temper, say, or procrastinating, or acting rashly or imprudently, your life might be harder than it needs to be. Sin makes you stupid, and you might have heard that life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.
But it’s hard either way. Psalm 90 says, “Our span is 70 years or 80 if we are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly and we are gone.” That’s a pretty bleak outlook!
I don’t want to overstate this. Life is hard, but it’s also beautiful. There are heavy crosses to carry, but also like we saw last month on Transfiguration Sunday, there are also glorious mountaintop experiences. Life is precious and sacred, and every day, no matter what it holds, is God’s gift to you. However hard life gets, we should always be grateful for our lives and the good things in them.
Sometimes hardships fall out of the sky through no fault of our own. Natural disasters are a good example — even if climate scientists are right that humans are making weather more extreme through greenhouse gases and global warming. Either way, it’s not like natural disasters only happen to people who deserve them! Jesus said our Father in heaven makes his sun shine on the good and the bad, and sends rain on the just and the unjust — and while he meant it in a good way, because we need rain too, not just sun, especially if you live in a dry climate like Israel, when it’s fifty inches of rain falling on the just and the unjust, that’s not a good thing.
Think of the parable of the wise and foolish builders who build houses, one on rock, the other on sand. The rains came, the floods rose, the winds blew and beat against those houses; one stood firm and the other fell. Jesus doesn’t promise his followers that we don’t have to worry about flood waters, real or metaphorical, but he tells us how not to be destroyed by them.
Of course Jesus isn’t talking about actual houses. I’m not saying that if you follow Jesus your house won’t be flooded or destroyed. Building your house on the rock means building your life on Jesus’ words, trusting in Jesus as the foundation of your life. That has to be the basis for how we face all hardship in life, self-inflicted or otherwise.
Deliver us from evil
When troubles fall out of the sky, the two great temptations are to doubt God’s goodness or to doubt his love for us. To think that this wouldn’t happen if a good God was in charge, or else, if a good God is in charge, then I’ve messed things up and God doesn’t care about my problems. He must be punishing me or trying to teach me something.
Our Lord on the cross shows us something very different: God is with us in our sufferings. He suffers with us so that when we suffer, we can suffer with him. The world says “Blessed are the rich, the happy, the proud, the satisfied”; our Lord says “Blessed are the poor, the sorrowing, the meek, the hungry and thirsty.”
Shortly before Communion we’re going to pray, in the words Jesus gave us, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This doesn’t just mean temptation to sin; it means any kind of testing or trouble or hardship. “Deliver us from evil” means every kind of evil, including sickness, economic hardships, and natural disasters. Deliver us from Irma. From loneliness. From back pain.
We should pray for these things, and we should be grateful for all the blessings that God does give us in this life. But when suffering comes and shows no signs of leaving, we shouldn’t be surprised or devastated, as if God’s love and care for us were suddenly in doubt.
Have faith in God’s goodness, in his love for you, and in his closeness when you suffer. It’s how he treats all his friends … until he comes with his angels in his Father’s glory to repay each of us according our conduct.