I have experienced a series of unfortunate events in the past few months. Bad things have happened one after another, and it has caused me to rethink my situation. Some of us are wondering whether our church is going to survive, as domino after domino keeps toppling. Personally, I have had all kinds of bad experiences, including an unexplained turn in my health. I decided to consider the Bible, and see what God has to say about when Christians go through tough times like these. I figured if he was trying to teach me something, it would be there.
Matthew 13:18-23 (JDV)
18 “So listen to the parable of the planter:
19 When anyone hears the message about the coming kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been planted in his heart. This is what was planted along the path.
20 As for what was planted on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the message and immediately receives it with joy,
21 yet he has no internal root, so stays true for a while, but when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message, he falls away right then.
22 As for what was planted among thorns, this is the one who hears the message, but the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches choke the message, and it becomes unfruitful.
23 As for what was planted on good soil, this is the one who hears the message and understands it. He really bears fruit and produces, in one case a hundred times as much, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
This passage is a good one to start with. It is the place where Jesus explains his parable of the soils. The parable itself was used by Jesus to show that there will always be different responses to the gospel when it is preached in the world. Jesus highlights four different responses using the allegory of four soils, and how they affect the seed planted in them.
The first soil he mentions is “the path” which doesn’t really receive the seed at all. The birds come and eat the seed before it has a chance to germinate and start growing. There is no life there. The truth comes and goes without any affect. The last soil Jesus speaks of is the good soil which produces an abundant crop. This is the ideal.
Neither of these seems to match my present experience. In other sermons and devotionals, I have pondered the four different kinds of response to the gospel, but that is not the direction I need to take now. Instead, I want to investigate the way Jesus describes tough times in this story.
“when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message, he falls away right then” (21).
This is when the tough times come into our lives for the express purpose of destroying our faith, and getting us to deny either God’s existence, or his relevance for our lives.
But notice the picture that Jesus has painted for me to look at. It is a picture of a crop that spouts up immediately. It is on rocky ground, so there is no internal root, but it looks just like the crop which had spouted on the good soil. When Jesus explains what the picture means, he says that it is people who receive the message of the kingdom immediately and joyfully.
I have seen so many people who appeared to have quickly and dramatically come to faith in Christ, but then just as quickly and dramatically lose all connection with the gospel and the church. That is what Jesus is talking about.
There are two causes for this phenomenon: an internal cause and an external cause. The external cause that Jesus refers to is when someone or something challenges the message of the gospel in your life. That is “when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message.” So, when the enemy of our faith notices that we are taking God’s word seriously, he will send direct challenges to the veracity of that word.
But Jesus also mentioned the internal cause of defection. The defector “has no internal root, so stays true for a while” … but defects as soon as his beliefs are challenged. In other words, there is no faith there strong enough to overcome the effect of the troubles that Satan sends to destroy it.
I worry sometimes that we tend to idolize people with the wrong kind of faith. Celebrities come along and appear to say something nice about Jesus, and we evangelicals fall all over ourselves to promote them. Then, when Jesus is no longer the flavour of the month for those celebrities any more, we look like idiots.
One thing we can learn from this portion of scripture is that true faith is long-haul faith. Troubles coming into our lives can help us to determine if we have that long-haul kind of faith. They can prove our identity as true Christians, because they reveal our roots. If our faith is real, it can withstand the challenges of the opposition.
“the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches choke the message, and it becomes unfruitful” (22).
The second way that Jesus describes tough times in this story is by painting a picture of a crop surrounded by thorns, briers, gorse. This is when the tough times come into our lives for the express purpose of distracting us from the natural process of maturing and bearing fruit as disciples of Jesus Christ. If the enemy cannot get me to defect, he is going to do all he can to distract me so that I am not productive in my faith.
The devil has two major tools that he uses to divert my attention away from productive Christianity: the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches.
The “worries of the age” can be big things that affect the entire planet, or they can be things that affect me more directly. They can be global warming, or a high fever. They can be war in the middle east, or not getting along with my spouse. They can be anxiety over the last political election, or even worrying about money.
The “untrustworthiness of riches” can be anything that is considered valuable that might serve as a substitute for the lordship of Christ and the pre-eminence of his kingdom. I must seek his kingdom and his righteousness first. If I put anything else first, it becomes for me the “untrustworthiness of riches.” Even if it is a good thing… in fact, especially if it is a good thing.
- Tolerance of other people’s world-views is a good thing. But if it keeps me from sharing the gospel with them, it has become my chief distraction.
- Love of your family is a good thing. But if it keeps me from my commitment to my family of faith, then it can become my chief distraction.
- Desire to provide for my family is a good thing. But if it forces me to focus on making money instead of making disciples, then it becomes greed, and my chief distraction.
Those thorn bushes are going to be there. There is no secret weapon that will eliminate them from the patch of land I happen to be planted on. I must overcome the distraction in order to be fruitful in my Christian life.
Having troubles is not evidence that I am not a Christian. Jesus said this to his followers on another occasion:
“Blessed are you who are poor, …
Blessed are you who are hungry …
Blessed are you who weep…
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil…” (Luke 6:20-22 ESV).
That sounds like tough times, and it is. The point is not that tough times may come. I think it is more than that. It seems that tough times – instead of proving that something is wrong with my Christian life – may prove that my identity as a Christian is genuine. After all, the planter is responsible for planting his glorious seed in my patch of rocky, thorn-filled ground.
As a conditionalist, I believe in the promise of an immortality I do not yet possess. I understand that my present life is not going to measure up to that hope. So, I will take life as it is now, tough times and all, because I believe in something better for my future. So, if today I happen to experience poverty, hunger, grief, or feel hated, excluded, reviled and spurned, I am not going to let those feelings change what I believe about my identity in Christ.