Almost a year ago today I was preparing for my second knee replacement surgery. The night before surgery I had to follow a set protocol: I had to wash my entire body with a high-powered anti-bacterial soap, using a freshly cleaned washrag and drying off with a freshly cleaned towel, then sleeping on freshly cleaned sheets. As soon as I reported to the hospital they shaved my knee and rubbed it with high-powered iodine. As soon as I came out of surgery they gave me equally high-powered antibiotics. Why all these precautions? Because the medical community involved in replacing my knee knew that at every stage in the process there were microbes that could violate the surgical area and introduce an infection in my knee that would wreak havoc on the procedure. All of these steps acknowledged that my knee was subject to attacking forces that could undo all that the surgeons and nurses were trying to accomplish. Had they not acknowledged this attacking aspect of life, inimical forces could have frustrated what the medical community was trying to bring to fruition.
I speak of this attacking nature of life because the Biblical scene presented to us today sheds light on why King Saul’s administration ended in humiliating disaster and King David’s rule reached heights of glory. The two men had very different attitudes toward the attacking nature of life. We behold them amidst a momentous crisis, Israel’s army facing a superior Philistine force, led by their imposing giant, Goliath. King Saul knows that his army is nothing more than a loose confederation of tribes, each motivated by their own self-interest, and Saul is acutely aware that his forces are unequal to the task before them. Moreover, the morale of Saul’s men droops daily as Goliath stands before them, issuing challenges, threats, insults and blasphemies. In truth, Saul is a very reluctant king, and he feels totally inadequate to meet the burdens of the day. You can almost hear him sighing, ‘This job of king ought to be easier.’
Meanwhile, young David stands before Saul expressing his desire to confront Goliath and bring him down. Saul wonders, “What in your background makes you think that you could face such a challenge?” Note David’s response. “Back in my daddy’s pasture, when I was tending my father’s sheep, a lion tried to take one of my flock, and God gave me strength to kill that lion. Later, a bear tried to eat one of my flock, and God gave me strength to kill the bear. Here is what I believe: the God who gave me strength to kill the lion and to kill the bear is the God who will grant me strength to face this Goliath, too.”
I say again, Saul and David approached the attacking nature of life with different perspectives. Saul expected life to go swimmingly. He was constitutionally incapable of handling the attacking nature of life. He thought that as a king his life should be smooth. But when his plans didn’t go as expected, when controversy plagued his every decision, when his authority was usurped and contradicted, Saul was surprised and devastated. He lacked the spiritual and psychological resources necessary to confront the attacking nature of life. David by contrast knew from an early age that life was inherently dangerous, unstable and fraught with conflict. David knew that even so innocuous and obscure a job as taking care of sheep was constantly threatened by chaos and danger. Plenty of things could go wrong. David knew from an early age that in reality life has an attacking nature, and you have to trust that God can give you the power to respond.
Let us switch from that army camp a thousand years before Christ to a typical contemporary household on a school night. A father comes home from a long day of work, knowing that a pile of paperwork sits on his desk awaiting his attention. His wife is dead tired, too, having put in a long day of work herself, and she is now muttering at the refrigerator, because the new ice maker that was installed last week is already not working. Their young daughter is in her room crying because a classmate was mean to her at school. One of their sons is staring at his math book and physically pulling his hair as he announces, “Algebra is stupid! Algebra is stupid! It doesn’t make any sense.” Their other son stares at a blank page upon which he is supposed to be writing a book report, yet he can’t seem to craft even the first sentence. The father senses the tension in his household and decides to check his email only to find that his first one is from a close friend announcing that today he has just received his final divorce papers. The friend admits that he is struggling to confront this final punctuation point of a love that has died. At every turn this household is experiencing the attacking nature of life.
So, how should that household respond? Well everyone could wallow in the fact that life is hard, that someone or something is always attacking their happiness and contentment. They could throw up their hands in despair and announce, ‘Life is just too hard!’ Or do they could draw from the fact that the Spirit of God provides us resources for overcoming every challenge. That young girl crying in her room could remember that there will always be people trying to steal her joy, always people who feel like their purpose in life is to spread venom. But she can also recall that the challenge of being a Christian is to overcome evil with good. She resolves that tomorrow when she sees that person who has told a lie about her, she will give her a warm smile — and that warm smile will be a spiritual act. That young man saying “Algebra is stupid,” will remember that God has blessed him with a mind capable of stretching itself, and he will go to his mother — not his father — and she will explain the principle that helps him unlock the answers to the questions that have stumped him. His asking for help is a spiritual act. That young man who can’t get started on that book report will complain to his dad, who will ask a simple question: what is the book about? H}e will answer, “It is a story about a man who pushes away all the people who could help him.” The dad will say, “You just wrote your opening line.” That child will begin to write with fluency and realize that God has given him a talent for self-expression and that using that talent is a spiritual act. That tired mother washes the dust off the old plastic trays that she never expected to use again and reminds herself that a dysfunctional ice maker is a small cross to bear. That father sits down to write his old friend a word of encouragement, expressing the hope that maybe the death of one love would preface the birth of a new one. That will be a spiritual act, too. We respond to the attacking nature of life by drawing upon the spiritual resources that God’s Spirit provides.
Think for a moment about how God has designed our bodies with an eye to the attacking nature of life. Our skin is an incredibly sophisticated barrier against most harmful bacteria that would invade us daily. Our tears, our mucous and our saliva are all are designed to stop and wash away invaders. We are equipped by God with an immune system of powerful enzymes and complex proteins that not only have the capacity to attack bacteria, but to “remember” those invaders so that they can attack them more effectively and rapidly the next time. When a single splinter pierces your finger, your body springs to action to limit the damage, blood vessels transporting white blood cells to the injured area, and the cells becoming sticky and adhering to the injured cellular walls so they can slow the progress of harmful bacteria. Then a complex chemical process ensues whereby these white cells find, battle and kill any cells that might do damage do us. Our bodies are designed with an eye to respond to the attacking nature of life.
So, too, our Bible also gives us fair warning that we must live our faith in a world of conflict. We might wish that we could live our faith amidst a world that is universally harmonious and conducive to inexorable spiritual growth, but the Bible tells us otherwise. Adam and Eve didn’t enjoy their paradise long before a tempter assaulted their integrity. The story of the world’s first two brothers was one of enmity and bloodshed. The story of the Tower of Babel demonstrated that humanity couldn’t enjoy its technological prowess without creating a hubris that attempted to destroy the distinction between itself and God. Scripture tells us plainly that in real life our relationship with God must flourish amidst ceaseless turmoil, controversy, persecution, criticism and misunderstanding. God offers us simple spiritual advice, “Do not kill; do not steal; do not lust; do not lie.” Why? Because God knows there is an impulse in every human heart not to respect life and love and possessions – neither our own or those of others. To live genuinely is to know that everything we cherish will be attacked from impulses outside of us – and from destructive impulses that arise within our own being!
So, how do we respond to the attacking nature of life? Scott Peck wrote a best-seller some years ago entitled, The Road Less Traveled. Its first sentence was, “Life is hard.” Yes, life is hard. But how do we respond? We could throw up our hands amidst adversity and conflict and lament like King Saul, ‘Life ought to be easier!’ But if we give into despair, if we surrender to hopelessness, if we allow ourselves to be overcome by the hardness of life, then we die. We might breathe another thirty years, but we are already dead.
How then do we respond? We understand that life is meant to be about struggle. Life is meant to be a fight in which blows are given and blows are received. And sometimes our noses get bloodied and sometimes we get knocked to the ground. Sometimes we mess up royally. But we must rise from the dust and go forward again, knowing that God gives us the ability to learn from our mistakes and apply that knowledge. I heard an interview with a world-renowned heart surgeon in which the reporter said, “I know you must be proud of the skill you have attained.” The physician answered back, “The truth is, I reflect often upon the many necessary mistakes I made to attain this level of competence.” Necessary mistakes – that is true of all of us who would truly mature and move forward amidst the attacking nature of life. We fall, we fail, we experience intense frustration – but God gives us the resources to pick ourselves up and to learn from our mistakes and move forward. Knowledge doesn’t leap from the textbook of life into our souls and minds. It is only gained through anguished investment, through struggle.
Life is about struggle, and struggle has a theological component. If you don’t remember anything else I say this morning, remember this: life is not about life. Life is not about life! Life is about thrusting our vision beyond the present circumstances of life to see life’s divine underpinnings. Life is meant to thrust our vision beyond the circumstances of life so that we can detect the presence of God with whom we are meant to commune. Life is not about life; life is meant to spur us to be in ceaseless conversation with God. In all of our struggles, in all of our wrestling with adversity, we are meant to tap the divine resources God makes available to us with which to respond to the attacking nature of life. Along the way we will encounter walls meant to be scaled, walls meant to be flanked, and walls meant to be respected. Part of true wisdom is discerning which walls are which.
Moreover, we go forth into life equipped with the testimony of David. The future before us is uncertain, but it is not blank. We think back upon all those dead ends in our lives where God showed us a way forward. We think back upon all those times when we thought there was no exit, no hope, but God showed us a path of deliverance. We think back to those harrowing dark nights of the soul that presaged moments of empowering light. We look back upon those seemingly hopeless situations from which we have emerged through God’s grace. The God who has given us strength to defeat the past lions and bears of our lives will be the God who gives us strength to defeat the future Goliaths, too. The first phrase from that great hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past, leaps easily to mind, but let us remember that the phase, “O God our help in ages past,” is wedded to the phrase, “our hope for years to come.” The past is a springboard to the future. The God who has given us strength in the past will be our strength in the future. God is our shelter from the present stormy blast, yes, but God is also – and ultimately — “our eternal home.” And nothing can separate us from his Presence.
What does Jesus say to us? I am the Good Shepherd. Though life attacks you, you need fear no evil. I will lead you beside still waters. I will nurture your soul in green pastures of grace. Though life attacks you, I will comfort you with my rod and my staff. And though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you need fear no evil, for goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life, and you shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. That is the promise to which we can always cling amidst the attacking nature of life.