About a year ago, I decided that I was going to take daily walk. Whenever I could, whatever the weather – within reason, I would go for a twenty minute march. It’s been good for me – helps concentration, often I meet people. What’s been a really lovely bonus is seeing the changes in the natural world.
One day it is all bare twigs, the next catkins are in flower. The bullocks in the field are lively when they are first let out, but as they grow they settle down. A few days of dry weather and the little stream becomes cracked mud. Over the year I’ve observed a rhythm to the seasons, a pattern of growth and change, variation held within stability.
The same is true of our own lives. We live within time, and to exist in time means change. There is a natural fluctuation, a rhythm. Sometimes the reasons are obvious – weight goes up when you eat more cake. Sometimes the reasons are less clear – moods go and up and down without necessarily having an obvious cause.
This happens in our spiritual lives too. As we continue our sermon series on prayer, this week we look at the joys and the sorrows, the agony and the ecstasy that comes in following God and particularly in our prayer lives. Do you know what I’m saying? Do you get that variation too – the fact that some days prayer is easy and I want to spend time with God, but other days a Facebook feed or an old magazine is all it takes because I half want to be distracted? One week we’re keen to find God’s will for our lives, another week following him feels like a burden.
That rhythm is natural. What goes up also comes down. And vice versa. So after a great spiritual event, like an ordination, it’s inevitable there will a period of just getting on with it. But those more challenging times are very important. Those are the times when God teaches us self-discipline. We learn to follow Him, not like a dog which gets a treat every time it performs, but as free individuals who know what’s right.
So it you make a great step forward in your faith and then run into a difficult period, don’t despair. It’s not a sign that your faith is weakening – far from it, this is designed to help you grow. Keep praying, keep living for God. However don’t acquiesce to the change and accept it as the new norm. Don’t lose your ambition. For it won’t last forever. And when you emerge from the desert, you’ll be stronger.
Few people knew this better than St Paul. He had been through immense challenges, and also some incredible high points. If anyone had met with triumph and disaster, it was Paul, and he describes it in the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 12 v2-10.
It’s not immediately obvious what’s going on. It seems that the people in the church at Corinth had an issue with Paul: they felt he wasn’t particularly impressive, not the charismatic leader they wanted. The Corinthians knew of ‘super-apostles’, people who’d had interesting spiritual experiences – and talked about them. So in this passage Paul is pushed to defend himself. He doesn’t want to, he seems quite diffident about it. He starts talking about ‘another person’ who’s had a remarkable spiritual odyssey – but it becomes clear this man is actually Paul himself.
He says he was ‘caught up’. In other words, a spiritual experience is a gift. Whenever we have a particular insight or moment with God, a sense of his presence, it is a grace from him. Not something earnt. Techniques of prayer can help open us up to the way God wants to meet us – but nothing forces him to act. Prayer is not an ABC checklist that always leads to a particular result – it’s a relationship. Remember that.
In verse 2 Paul talks about the third heaven – traditionally there were believed to be seven levels. And in v.3 he’s not sure whether he went ‘in the body’ or not. In other words, it can be hard to describe a spiritual experience. Is it a vision? A dream? Are you physically there? This difficulty can actually be a sign of what is genuine.
Whatever it was, Paul saw and heard things that ‘he is not permitted to say.’ We don’t know why, but Paul is not allowed to go into any detail about what he’s heard or seen. This is important. Real spirituality is like this: humble, consistent, doesn’t show off. There were many alternative spiritualities around in Paul’s time, just as there are today. Gnosticism, Mysticism, Kabbala, the Occult. Their practitioners went into great detail about what they thought they had seen. They tried to draw people in with the promise that you too can share in this secret knowledge.
Fake spirituality makes much of revealing secrets, of boasting about special experiences, giving techniques to the initiates. But Paul says true spirituality is rooted in Christ. If we’re given an experience of God, it’s there to encourage us. To build faith in him. Not to be an end in itself.
Spiritual experiences help give substance to our hope. They inspire us, encourage us, as we put our faith in Jesus. But the point is: our faith is in Jesus. The experience points to Christ, it is not an end in itself. So be wary of any spirituality which seeks after experiences for their own sake. Don’t be always chasing the latest high.
For faith is meant to make us love God and serve others. And sometimes faith is strongest when we are most challenged. Paul ends by saying that it is not the visions and ecstasy that he boasts of. Rather, he boasts of his weakness. For it’s through his weakness that the power of Christ is shown to be strong.
The English phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ comes from this passage. We don’t know what it was Paul suffered from – an illness? A temptation? Three times he pleaded with Lord to take it away, but the Lord replied ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.’ It is the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl. So in v.10, Paul is ‘content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ In other words, it’s the challenges that reveal and strengthen faith, as much as, if not more than the high points.
We can see this in the gospel reading too. The disciples did amazing things. They healed people and preached to crowds, but Jesus anticipated that they would be rejected, because he was. When Jesus returned to the village where he was brought up, the response was not pride at the local lad made good, it was ‘Who does he think he is?’
That’s why Jesus could do no miracles there. It wasn’t that his power was limited, it’s that people had closed themselves off to him. Don’t believe those who say ‘You’re not healed because you haven’t got enough faith’. That’s wrong. Jesus can work wherever there is any faith – even a tiny amount. Remember the man who said ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’ If we’re willing to work with God, he can work with us, no matter how small our faith. But those people had closed themselves off, they refused to accept him.
Even today it’s hard to establish your own identity if people think they already know who you are. But it’s crucial that those who are growing in faith are given the space to develop, the freedom to try things out, the liberty to succeed or fail in a supportive environment.
Looking out for one another is key. For as we’ve heard in the Christian life there are great joys. Closeness to God, blessing, times when what we do is effective. Yet there are also times where, despite faithfully following God’s will, we experience challenge, opposition, spiritual dryness even apparent failure.
We’ve thought about the reasons for this. The natural ebb and flow of our energy. External forces beyond our control. Our openness to God. But sometimes the reasons are not obvious – and maybe those times of challenge strengthen our faith through perseverance and learning to trust God when we can’t see the way ahead.
So in those times we should be aware of what’s going on, take care of one another, make the challenges a subject of our prayers, and also rejoice in what God is able to do with us.
For God is with us in the triumphs and the disaster. God is in the agony and the ecstasy. One day the set-backs will fade, never to return. And we will be in his presence for ever.