When Things Go Wrong
Things go wrong, even for characters in Bible stories. Nowadays, among the younger generation, Bible stories are not known so well as they once were, but let us assume our readers will be familiar with the ones we refer to. Stories, and Jesus told many of them, can be easily remembered, whether they are fact or fiction, and it is possible to understand them at different levels. Sometimes one may find an allegory for God's plan, or an insight into God's character, or just a tale of something that happened. We aim here to consider some stories at the personal level, and to focus on a point in a character's life when things went wrong. So we take note of what happened to a religious activist who was being deported, the problems of a migrant widow without means of support, how a teenager was hit by a severe recession and the reaction of a tycoon whose whole world collapsed.
Paul the apostle was in protective custody at Caesarea. His Jewish enemies were trying to get him out of Roman hands so they might have an opportunity to kill him. To prevent this, he used his right of Roman citizenship to appeal to the highest court and be judged by Caesar at Rome. (This would have the incidental benefit of enabling him to reach Rome, which he had hitherto been prevented from doing.) At first the journey to Rome went well. Julius, the centurion in charge of prisoners, treated Paul kindly. They changed ship, and despite unfavourable sailing conditions, had reached the island of Crete. Then a dispute arose whether it was safe to continue to Rome in winter, the closed season for sea travel. Paul warned that if they carried on, the ship and its cargo of wheat would be lost, perhaps their own lives. He was overruled, and they set sail again, hoping at least to reach a better harbour in which to lay up the ship for winter. But a terrific gale sprang up, the ship was driven off course, and was in imminent danger of sinking in the violent storm. So Paul faced, not a journey to Rome to defend the gospel, but death at sea.
Things had gone so wrong because of the mistakes of the centurion and the ship's captain. What was Paul's reaction? He did say, 'I told you so'. But God's angel had stood by him and assured him he would reach Rome, and that all their lives would be saved. So Paul made it his business to encourage them all and give advice, which Julius now paid attention to.
Paul faced this situation with prayer, and with determination. He prayed on behalf of all those aboard the ship. He knew he was under God's personal care, not only for his own sake, but for the sake of his ministry. How do we react when the mistakes others make leave us in a hole? Do we find it in our hearts not only to pray for them, but to trust ourselves to our heavenly Father in the situation, and be sure our ministry (however small!) is in His care?
To be an economic migrant is no new thing in the history of the world, especially when the spur to migration is famine. Faced with extreme climatic conditions the only thing to do is move on. At least, that is what Elimelech thought when he took his wife and two sons to live across the border in Moab. Perhaps he was one of the more go ahead inhabitants of Bethlehem. Perhaps he was wrong, for in later years there were still men living in Bethlehem who had survived the famine.
We all know that in Moab Elimelech died, his sons married Moabite girls but also died, and so the crisis point came for his widow Naomi. She went back to her own people, accompanied only by the widow of one of her sons. Originally her hope must have been to establish their clan in Moab, to have all her grandchildren around her, to maintain the family line. Now all that was gone. She returned home bitter.
Was it her own fault? She interpreted the series of events as the Lord dealing bitterly with her. It would be easy for someone outside the situation to say the family should never have left Israel, and it would be speculation to count up how many other widows have been brought to beggary by the death of their menfolk. What happened to her was a real tragedy. Certainly she was sensible to go back to where she had kin, where the rules of society covered the treatment of widows. Did she pray for guidance? for strength? She must have had a real faith for Ruth to choose to accompany her, to join her people and worship her God. Then, when rescue came through this daughter in law, she saw it as the Lord's kindness which had not forsaken the living or the dead.
Naomi's story could be matched in part in today's world, an everyday story of famine and migration. She did not choose what befell her. She acted as best she could, with faith. She did not know her family's future. When things go wrong for us, do we know the future?
This story is in some ways parallel with the story Jesus told about the young man whose troubles were very much his own fault. He too left his home, and the settled order of family life. He too eventually found salvation by going back to his roots. But apart from his youthful impatience, did he have any good reason for throwing up the discipline of work which was the key to prosperity; for making use of inheritance customs which seemed to his immediate advantage; for spending as if there was no tomorrow, and finding there was no tomorrow? I have no patience with young men like this, of which our own society has too many, thrown out from night clubs and still drinking on street corners. It is said that the current recession - depression - imposes a salutary discipline upon our society. The 'prodigal son' discovered discipline in its starkest form - utter hunger, and no welfare state to pick him up.
His objective had been to live the good life as he understood it. His failures were nothing more than immaturity, thoughtlessness, impatience, selfishness. His father still loved him. Which was a good thing, because his father was still there when he came to his senses.
The prodigal's father is possibly idealised. Many young men in trouble in our times may not find their family quite so sympathetic, even if they are truly sorry for their mistakes. But Jesus in telling the story, shows that in God our Father we have the ideal parent. What a shame it is to test His patience by letting things go wrong in our lives which do not need to happen.
The things which happened to Job were not by any means his own fault, except in so far as they were a reaction to his goodness and success. He was a successful tycoon according to the methods and standards of his day. He brought up his family well. He was blameless and upright. And then in one day all his wealth and family were destroyed, and next he lost his health to a loathsome disease. What price his religion then?
His first reaction was "Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." He also said, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" These brave first responses hid a real hurt and despair. Job went on to express at length his misery and his desire to 'have it out' with God, displaying a faith that was wistful rather than assured.
The story of Job is written in a formalised way, in order to bring out the questions around God's permission of evil. Should we ourselves lose everything, even if it is not riches like Job's; should our work be destroyed, if only in part; should our lives fall apart, even if we do not think of our life as God's personal gift; the same questions arise. Things went wrong for Job in the biggest possible way, but if we have less hideous problems we may still think that life is not fair. God is not fair! And like Job, we come to realise that we cannot understand just everything. It is God who understands the mystery of suffering, and when His Son became a man, even for Him things went wrong, by any normal standard, in a spectacular way.
Our focus in these stories has been on the critical moment when trouble strikes, and not on the 'happy ending' which they all have. This perspective may be useful, because in our human lives this is the place where we are at, in the thick of life, where there are lessons to be learned and character to be built. And yes, for each of us and for the world, God has in mind a happy ending to this chapter, a time when things will not go wrong.