The Hour of Trial

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 13, 1996

Readings:

Exodus 17:1-7 Testing the Lord
Mark 14:32-40 Jesus prays in Gethsemane
Arcana Coelestia #842.3 Chaos leads to clarity


He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7)

Quarreling and testing the Lord. You would think that with all the church's teachings that the Lord is all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful, and so on, we would have no need to test the Lord. We would simply know that the Lord is everything to us, and would follow what the Lord teaches without doubts or questions.

But that is not how we human beings work. We don't just listen and accept. We test things out first. We have to learn through our own experience--which often means learning in the school of hard knocks. We struggle with God about the most basic issues of our lives.

In this, we are not alone. In the Biblical story, Abraham and Sarah both laughed the first time they heard the Lord saying they would have a son in their old age. (Genesis 17:17; 18:12) Jacob wrestled with God all night, even after his hip was put out of joint. (Exodus 32:22-32) And in our Old Testament reading for today, we heard one of many instances where the Children of Israel quarreled and tested God, both during their wanderings in the desert and after they had settled in the Holy Land.

We know from our church's teachings about the Bible that all of these stories--as well as the story of Jesus' anguish in our New Testament reading--tell also about struggles that go on within us as we travel our life's path. Inner struggles are a part of the process that Swedenborg calls spiritual rebirth, or "regeneration." There are various words used to describe these inner struggles. Temptation. The dark night of the soul. Spiritual anguish. Depression. The book of Revelation calls these dark and troublesome times "the hour of trial." (Revelation 3:10)

We all have these difficult times. Sometimes they are sparked by a particular event in our lives. Someone we love dies or becomes seriously ill. We become seriously ill ourselves. A relationship breaks up. We find ourselves out of work. A friend betrays our trust. Other times, we cannot put our finger on any particular event that brought on our depression and struggle. We just have a general feeling that everything is wrong; we begin to wonder whether it is really worth it to keep on going. Sometimes depression is brought on by the very thought that nothing at all seems to have happened in our lives for too long a time--that we are stuck in a rut.

Whatever the reason, we all have times when the going is rough. These are the times that correspond to the various struggles, trials, battles, and anguished passages in the Bible. Why are they there? Why are all these negative things in the Bible? And why are they in our lives? Wouldn't life be a lot better if there were just good things happening, and no bad things?

Our reading from Swedenborg begins to point us toward an answer to these difficult questions. He says,

Before anything can be put in order, it is very common for it first to be brought into a confused mass that looks like chaos. In this way, things that do not go well together are separated from each other. When they are separated, the Lord then arranges them in order. (Arcana Coelestia #842.3)

The fact is, all of us have things in our lives that do not belong there. There are things we believe that just aren't true. One of the most common wrong beliefs is that we are in some way better or more special than everyone else. There are also things we feel, or want to do, that just aren't good. Impatience, leading to hasty and poorly thought-out courses of action. Unwarranted anger, leading to words and actions that hurt other people. Self-centeredness that leads us to disregard the feelings and needs of others. The list could go on and on. We all have parts of ourselves that do not fit in with the image of God in which we were created.

Yet we hold onto these parts of ourselves. We like to think we're better or smarter or nicer than other people. We feel justified in being impatient or angry when things don't go the way we think they should. And putting ourselves at the center seems easier than taking all those other people's feelings into account. On our own, we are not likely to do anything about any of these flaws in our character. Unless something comes along to shake us up, those hurtful parts of ourselves will continue right along with the good parts.

In fact, it is worse than that. If something doesn't come along to break us out of our bad habit patterns, they will build up and become worse and worse until they choke out our life.

Swedenborg gives us two memorable images of how this happens. It is like the weather, he says. If there weren't storms and wind, any noxious gases that happened to be present would build up until they became deadly. Apparently Swedenborg knew something about air pollution before the subject became popular! In our times, city dwellers know that windless days mean smoggy air. And we have all experienced the beautiful, clear, calm after a raging storm. Without winds and storms, we lose our supply of fresh, healthful air. Eventually we may not be able to breathe at all.

Inner struggles are also like the circulation of our blood. If the heart did not continually pump the blood around our body and mix it together on its way through, natural processes of clotting and congealing would take over. Without the chaos of mixing that takes place in the heart and arteries, our life-blood would literally freeze in our veins.

It is the same with our spiritual breath of thoughts and beliefs, and with our spiritual life-blood of love and compassion. As long as we have within us the pollutants and toxins of self-centeredness, materialism, and all the wrong thoughts and feelings that come from them, we need storms of inner struggle and temptation to stir things up so that the Lord can help us to remove the bad parts of ourselves while strengthening the good parts.

For the Israelites in the desert, that struggle and testing took the form of complaints against God and a lack of trust that God would take care of them. But each time, God did take care of them. For those who were willing to listen, this continual experience weakened their distrust of God and strengthened their faith that, yes, God was with them.

For Jesus, in our New Testament reading, the struggle took the form of anguished prayer before he was to undergo his most difficult struggle of all--the crucifixion. Even his closest friends and followers--the disciples Peter, James, and John--could not stay awake and support him at that time. From the human perspective, he was alone in his suffering--and that is just the way we so often feel when we hit the skids of depression and despair. Alone, without a friend in the world.

We may or may not have a friend in the world. Usually we do, but we may feel too paralyzed to turn to any friends. Of course, like Jesus, we do have a friend in heaven. The Lord will never abandon us, even when we abandon the Lord. However, when we are in the "hour of trial," we often do not realize that. We feel that we must face the inner storm clouds on our own. Whether we realize that the Lord is with us or not, the way we face our inner struggles will determine whether we grow from them or sink deeper into the pit.

Before looking further into this, though, it might be helpful to mention that not all of our tough times involve spiritual struggles. Some of them are simply material anxieties. How can we tell the difference? If we are upset only about physical or material things, such as being sick or having a financial setback, then it is material anxiety, not spiritual temptation that we are dealing with. We do have to take care of these things, but in themselves they do not affect our spiritual development all that much.

However, if our struggles are about spiritual things--about our relationships with other people and with the Lord--then it is a spiritual trial that we are experiencing. If we are dealing with issues of whether we can believe in and love the Lord, and whether we can love, understand, and care for the people in our lives, then we are struggling with the deeper aspects of our lives--and the result of that struggle will deeply affect our spiritual development. If we come out with a renewed sense that loving others is what is most important to us, the spiritual course of our lives will be very different than if we give in to negativity and despair, and let the self-centered, materialistic part of ourselves rule our lives. Sooner or later, the outcome is likely to affect the physical course of our lives as well. When push comes to shove, we will act differently if we are motivated by love for others and for the Lord than if we are motivated only by self-love and a desire for material possessions and pleasures.

When it comes to spiritual temptations, the stakes are high: it is our eternal life that is in the balance. Will we spend eternity in the heavenly community that is formed within us and around us when we love and care for each other, or in the hell that we create for ourselves when we care only for ourselves, and use others to achieve our own ends?

With this perspective on our spiritual struggles, we can look at a few things that might be helpful when we are faced with them. In reality, there is no magic formula that will pull us through every time. The reason we are struggling in the first place is that we are facing issues that are deep and difficult for us. As Swedenborg points out, the very chaos of conflicting emotions is an essential part of the sorting out process that must take place before calm and clarity can come to our inner lives. It would be a mistake to try to short-circuit that process by jumping to quick solutions.

Still, we can get some help. Simply knowing that these bouts of confusion and depression are a normal part of our spiritual growth can in itself help us to weather them through. It is like seeing where we are on a map. It doesn't make the trip any shorter, but it certainly is nice to know that we are on the right road!

As for actually facing the "hour of trial," one of our best weapons is the spiritual truth we have learned from the Bible and from the church. When we are in the middle of an inner struggle, all sorts of arguments are flying back and forth in our heads. One side is saying it is not worth it and we should give up, while the other is saying it certainly is worth it, and we need to see this through to the end. If, in the time of struggle, we can make a conscious effort to remind ourselves of some of the things the church teaches about the Lord's constant presence with us, the vital importance of loving each other, and even about the process of temptation and spiritual growth itself, we can strengthen the side of us that cares and help to bring our struggle to a positive conclusion.

Another thing that can help is to break ourselves out of the isolation that we often go into when we are feeling down, and reach out to someone we love and trust. After all, one of the main lessons we are here on this earth to learn is how to support and care for each other. When we share our pain and confusion with someone else, we find that we are not alone. We also experience something of mutual love by the very act of letting someone else into our pain and letting them show their love and concern for us. This strengthens the spiritual love within us and weakens our self-centeredness--which is the very thing that needs to be sifted out of us during this period of confusion and chaos.

In the end, though, it is only when we turn to the Lord that we experience the new life that can come after the storm of temptation. The Lord is the source of all love and understanding. Without a conscious recognition of the Lord in our lives, we cannot tap directly into the source of everything good that happens to us. If we do not recognize that it is really the Lord who is fighting and winning for us, we will have a blind spot that will eventually plunge us right back into the same mess we were trying to get out of.

We are not always going to feel the Lord's presence when we are in the middle of the struggles. But afterwards we can call our attention to the fact that without the Lord's help, we would never have been able to pull through. The trust and reliance on the Lord that this builds in us lays the foundation for a lasting spiritual life.

We have all faced struggles of one kind or another, and we will all face them again. But we are not left without help in the hour of trial. The cup of anguish will not always be taken away from us. Yet if through the difficult passages of our lives we learn to love each other more, and if we gain greater faith in the Lord's presence within and among us, then the storm of temptation will eventually turn into the beautiful, calm, sunny day of mutual love and understanding. Amen


Music: Velvet and Diamonds (the Star-Filled Sky)
1999 Bruce DeBoer 
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Robert Meyers