“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” ~Shakespeare – Hamlet~
Sooner or later, situations that can only be described as rotten happen to everyone. In our earthbound perspective sometimes life can take a nasty turn, but think about it: Maybe having something terrible occur has a purpose rooted in the unshakeable bedrock of eternity.
Perhaps, outside the realm of understandings, there are reasons for the potholes and pitfalls in our lives. When getting bounced around by the challenging terrain it’s a good idea to take a fresh look at a passage Paul of Tarsus wrote: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Note the tone of this admonition—it is not a suggestion. We are instructed to be thankful in all the vagaries of life. Is that always easy?
No, not at all—to give thanks in tough times often stretches us almost to the breaking point because it is contrary to our self-preservation instincts and the concept of fairness. Yet, we are commanded to give thanks in all circumstances.
When financial pressures take on the elements of a neverending story—give thanks in that circumstance. When obstacles and detours transform optimism into an elusive commodity—give thanks in that circumstance. When relational hurts stack up on top of each other—give thanks in that circumstance. When a loved one loses a brutal battle with cancer—give thanks in that circumstance.
Let’s have a moment of sheer honesty: When crappy situations smack us down, our reflexive reaction is seldom gratitude. We may rant and rave a bit, or simply clench our teeth and grind our way through the distress. However, there is nothing ambiguous in Paul’s words, and despite the dominance of relativism, words actually do mean something.
We are to give thanks in all circumstances, and that gratitude is specifically connected to prayer and joy. The finite resources of our brain cannot fathom the reasoning because it is supernatural and infinite. In the midst of troubles, our impulse is to rebel and turn the question WHY? into a mantra.
It matters not that comprehension is fleeting and vaporous smoke we cannot fully grasp. We are flat-out told that this combination of joy, prayer and thanksgiving is God’s desire for us as Christ-followers.
It boils down to a faith issue—do we truly take God at his word?
Listen to the folksy wisdom of an elderly sharecropper who was illiterate but wise. One of his favorite sayings was this: “If you ain’t in trouble, your prayers ain’t got no suction.” That bumper-sticker proverb contains a piece of truth in a quaint nutshell: Prayer is an essential element for a healthy life because it causes us to look beyond ourselves.
Our tendency is to reduce all of life to me and mine—the sun rises and sets on the landscape of our particular problems. That attitude results in lots of self-absorbed drama which causes us to miss or lose sight of a fundamental reality: We were created to be in a growing relationship with our Creator.
We can rapidly forget that fact when things are cruising along just fine. When there are no hardships or difficulties we tend to keep God and all things spiritual on a shelf in a dusty closet. We drift into patterns of complacency marked by prayers that “ain’t got no suction.” The Bible teaches that our weakness or failure is God’s opportunity. We are bent toward self-sufficiency, so it often takes something rotten to shake us up. God is most likely to be found when we come to the end of ourselves and run out of answers. Sadly, sometimes it is not until we are knee-deep and sinking fast that we even look to God. Yet, no matter the conditions or surroundings, when we seek God, we find him.
The Psalmist declared: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”
Or consider the great prophets of the Old Testament: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah. These were not prosperity preachers who provided a prescription for material comfort. They shook the status quo and rattled the establishment. It was in the middle of a crisis or national disaster—when something was rotten in the state of Israel—that they were stirred up to point people to God.
Is there something rotten in the state of Advent? If all our traditions and celebrations do not direct us to God, there certainly is something amiss—if the mystery and majesty of God’s personal intervention in human history escapes us, then what exactly is the reason for the season?
Advent is supposed to be all about expectation and anticipation. We are to prepare our hearts and minds for a renewed rendezvous with the One who created the universe—the One who loves us with an everlasting love—the One who holds all our tomorrows in continuous mercy.
In the busyness of parties and bauble-studded evergreens it is vitally important to remember that God wants us to enjoy a connection with him. The whole rationale of God setting aside eternity to become a babe in a manger was to facilitate that relationship. God is holy. We are polar opposite of holy—we are sinners. Sin and holy are not compatible. There is nothing we can do to blot out sin, so God went to extreme lengths on our behalf.
When the time had fully come—when life on planet earth had unfolded according to his precise timetable—God sent his son into the world to redeem us; to set us free from the rottenness of sin; to empower us to walk in the light of Christ; to pour grace into our lives. Jesus did not wait until we became good enough.
Paul of Tarsus proclaimed that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were at our worse, God made friends with us—while something rotten festered in our soul he loved us all the way to the cross.
What does all this mean? Just this: Those with the greatest need—those who are poor in spirit—are most likely to encounter the Messiah. After all, Jesus did not come to cure the healthy but the sick. He does not intend to round up the pious or religiously-correct, but to seek and save those who are lost.
Bad stuff happens all the time. The hard edges of life may frustrate us to the max, or cut and bruise us, but as long as we’re breathing there’s always hope for help, healing and redemption. Something rotten in our lives can ofttimes be the catalyst for something wondrous—we can experience Emmanuel, God With Us.
If we are hurting or spiritually hungry our prayers have tremendous suction. From the depth of sorrow, we can cry out to God. He wants to rescue us—he wants to cleanse the rotten stain within.
There is much gladness and comfort in God’s permanent promise: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”