By Paul Koch –
Deep down I have always been a fan of doing hard things. Not that I don’t thoroughly enjoy just lounging on the beach or getting in an afternoon nap. Rather, I believe if we simply default to the path of least resistance, to the easy and simple, we miss out on something important. For it is often in the strain and the hard of work of life, both work and play, that we find the greatest means to shape and build our character. I love going hiking in the mountains, having to work hard to make it just over the next pass. The tired legs and aching back make the expansive views even sweeter. I like taking my kids for little day hikes up in Arroyo Verde Park and when they begin to complain about how tired their little legs are, that’s when I tell them we have to go over just one more hill (or more likely two). It is that final press toward victory that makes the journey so rewarding, and you can see it in their faces when they smile under the shade of a tree and talk about how far they went.
Doing hard things, whether it is going for a hike or getting to the gym or mastering a new craft, are all incredibly rewarding. Yet our lives are most often marked by difficulties that are not ones we choose to do, rather we are simply caught up in them or they are thrust upon us. But we learn from our other victories. We learn that if we can endure, if we can fight through, we will be richly rewarded. And this experience in life is captured in the church when a brother or sister is struggling with some particularly trying situation and that familiar saying is spoken, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Now that phrase is loosely based on a text from Scripture. The actual text is not speaking about overcoming difficulty but facing temptation in your life. The quote is from 1 Corinthians 10 which says, “God is faithful he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” But we have taken it and applied it to the rest of our trials and struggles because it gives us hope. It gives us hope that we will be able to overcome, we will be able to endure, whatever it is we are facing. Our hope, then, is like hiking through the mountain pass. We believe that if we just dig in a little deeper, we try and little harder, we give it one last shot, and then we will be over and we will be victorious. After all, God won’t give you more than you can handle.
There is an old story of Greek Mythology about a king named Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the founder of Corinth and was a man of great cunning and deception. His hubris didn’t stop with his fellow man but was played out in his interactions with the gods. When his life came to an end and he was finally hauled down to Hades, he was condemned to a very particular type of eternal suffering. His punishment would be that of hard labor. Not just any hard labor but hard labor that would be eternally frustrated. His task was to roll and large boulder up a mountain. That was his goal, to get the boulder to the summit. But the boulder was enchanted and every time he reached the edge of the precipice the boulder would slip out of his grip and roll back to the bottom. So he would start all over again – for all eternity.
Another story of a hard and difficult trial is found in the life of Elijah, the great prophet of God. It may not be as memorable as king Sisyphus, but his story is simply amazing. If you remember, he is the one who stood against the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and taunted them to cause their god to consume the altar with fire. When they could not, he turned to the altar he erected to the true God. He dug a trench around it and flooded the whole thing with water. Then getting on his knees, he prayed saying, “Let it be known this day that you are God in Israel.” Fire fell from the sky and consumed the altar burning it all dry. Elijah then had the people gather the false prophets. He took them down to the brook of Kishon where they were slaughtered.
The problem was that these prophets were the pride and joy of the wicked queen Jezebel. When she learned what Elijah had done, she swore an oath to kill him. She was relentless in her pursuit of the prophet, and he fled out into the wilderness. But he was worn out; exhausted he collapsed under a broom tree and asked that the Lord might simply take his life. He had nothing left, the tank was empty, it was time to throw in the towel. This man wasn’t a coward; he had faced over 450 false prophets all by himself. He wasn’t one who had a weak or shaky faith in the Almighty. Time and again God had worked powerful things through Elijah. But he was mentally and physically and emotionally exhausted.
At that moment, laying there under the broom tree, his tale was not different than Sisyphus. It wasn’t just that their task was hard or difficult. Rather the task was impossible. The line, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” withers and dies with an exhausted prophet. There is no longer any hope in the strength of man. There is no effort that will see him through to victory.
We, too, join Elijah in a task that is beyond our effort. Like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain we have a task that is doomed to futility. However our task is clothed in far more beautiful garments, our effort is couched in the language of holiness and righteousness. The boulder we set to our shoulders is the holy and pure Law of God. This is a law that calls for perfection and it demands that you love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and love each other as yourselves. Not just give it your best shot, not just try until you feel better about your situation. No, you are to be holy as God himself is holy. And I think we want to do it. We desire to be holy and we assure ourselves that God won’t give us more than we can handles. So we gather up our courage and try one more time to reach the summit.
I’ve seen this resolve in the faces of those who suffer from great emotional and mental anguish. They sit on the couch in my study, and they are worn out and on the verge of tears. Life seems to have come crashing in all around them, but they try and dig deeper just one more time to give it one more go. People fail to be the parents they want to be, the parents God has called them to be. They fail to forgive and help those who have hurt them. They fail to live an upright life beyond shame and vice. And at times they crash down under the broom tree exhausted, done for.
The Angel of the Lord comes to Elijah there in his brokenness. His words are so precious to us. He says, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”
This journey is too great for you. This is more than you can handle! This is the word of grace that would never come to king Sisyphus; but it came to Elijah and it has come to you as well. Elijah eats and drinks the divine meal provided by the Angel of the Lord and went (as the text says), “in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”
And so we gather together. We gather, worn out, having failed to live as we ought to. Your sins have impeded your process up the mountain. Some of you may have given it a good shot and made it quite far up the mountain. But many more I suspect are like me; having barely got the stone to budge, you stumbled and fell immediately. But here the Son of God arrives in your midst. Here He lifts your eyes to a table prepared just for you. “Arise,” He says, “take and eat, this is my body given for you, take and drink my blood shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.” Arise my brothers and sisters and feed upon the heavenly food of God. Forgiveness and life are given to you in bread and wine. Arise, for the journey is too great for you.
You are forgiven, and so let us go in the strength of this food to the mountain of our God.