Old Testament Inspiration for People in Crisis

September 12th, 2013

If a friend came to you with terrible news—he had cancer, or her house had just burned down—what biblical comfort and encouragement might you offer?

Paul’s words about the temporary nature of suffering? Jesus’ assurance that those who mourn are blessed and will be comforted? Maybe you would pray the words of a Psalm, or remind your friend of Job’s confidence that suffering is not God’s punishment.

Even asking this question makes me think of the simplistic view of ministry expressed by Johnny Cash’s brother in the movie “Walk the Line.” Cash’s beloved brother Jack, who hopes to be a preacher, says of his extensive Bible reading, “How you gonna help somebody if you can’t tell ‘em the right story?” Quoting Bible verses at someone in pain seems to defy Pastoral Care 101, which for a crisis situation might instead emphasize a ministry of presence, but for preaching and teaching, exposition of Scripture and pastoral care meet head-on.

(Related: See “Preaching to Form a Pastoral Community,” by Lee Ramsey.)

As Max Lucado says, we should “preach like there is a broken heart on every pew.” Sentimental and hyperbolic, perhaps, but he has a point. Struggles and sorrow are a ubiquitous part of the human experience, one that many in a congregation are enduring on any given Sunday. So if you’re hoping to address that felt need with a certain sermon, series, or study, what scriptures are the best starting points?

It was learning about two recent book releases that got me thinking, “Is the Old Testament inherently better for inspiring people in challenging times?” One of those was Lucado’s newest book, You’ll Get through This: Hope and Help for Your Turbulent Times, which uses Joseph’s saga in Genesis 37-50; and the other, from Shane Stanford and Brad Martin, Five Stones: Conquering Your Giants, which centers on the metaphor of young David defeating Goliath with his slingshot.

So, I thought I’d ask these two pastor-authors their perspective on the question, as long-time preachers and pastoral caregivers.

It was actually Stanford’s experience being encouraged by a sermon about David and Goliath that prompted him to share that message with others in Five Stones.

Stanford was sixteen when he learned that a treatment for his hemophilia had infected him with HIV. At that time, such a diagnosis felt like a death sentence, but he heard a message of hope in a sermon on I Samuel 17. The pastor, Billy Skinner, was a “better pastor than preacher, as they say about some clergy,” Stanford recalls. But Skinner stood up in the pulpit that day and began, “My name is Billy Skinner and I am a giant-killer.”

Stanford begins his book the same way: “I am Shane Stanford and I am a giant-killer.”

Skinner asked the congregation, “How many of you are trying to put on your neighbor’s armor?” and Stanford does the same. The metaphor of young David being urged to put on Saul’s armor is one many people can connect with as they try to find their way through life’s hardships.  Stanford and Martin urge readers to identify the unique strengths and tools God has given them (much like David’s five stones) to overcome their obstacles.

Stanford says Old Testament figures are so helpful for modern readers because they are so imperfect. David may be the hero in the Goliath story, but later shows some real, human weaknesses. “We’ve all been walking on the roofs of our lives and gotten distracted,” Stanford says, referencing David’s infamous ogling of Bathsheba and all that comes after. “In the end, David’s greatest giant was himself.”

Lucado suggests that it is the breadth and depth of Old Testament figures’ stories that makes them so relatable. While we meet Peter and Paul as adults and read about relatively few of their life experiences, we see Moses, David, Joseph and others from birth or childhood on through adulthood, and see the long view of their struggles.

You’ll Get Through This emphasizes what Joseph asserts in Genesis 50: 20: “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it.” Most of Joseph’s troubles are not his own fault (if you excuse the juvenile arrogance that made his brothers plot to harm him), but he endures in the face of hardship and doesn’t make it worse—no small feat, according to Lucado.

“When people get to the point of despair, they start making really bad decisions that hurt themselves and others,” Lucado says. For example, “Joseph could have said yes to Potiphar’s wife, told himself he deserved the attention, but he refused to compromise. He did the next right thing.”

Whether a person’s crisis is the result of his own poor choices or the result of an accident, illness, or natural disaster, the stories of David, Joseph, and so many other Old Testament figures show how God works in, through, and around normal people and their struggles.

(Related: a six-week study of Job)

As pastors, Lucado and Stanford both have seen the power of these stories in guiding people through their darkest times.

“Many people lack an understanding of suffering,” Lucado says. “Either they think that if they are Christian, they’re not going to suffer, or they think that if they do suffer, God messed up somehow. Joseph gives us a biblical view of suffering, which says: yes, there is evil, but God can use it for good.”

The messages in You’ll Get Through This began as sermons to Lucado’s congregation, as many of his books do, and Lucado recalls this series being received “better than most,” as it touched such a felt need for his congregation. Lucado’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, has partnered with the Salvation Army to distribute a paperback version of the book to people affected by disasters.

An element of the book called “The Survivor’s Creed” is a tool Lucado has used for years, as people are encouraged to affirm “I’ll get through this; it won’t be painless; it won’t be quick; God will use this for good. . . .”

Stanford likewise offers practical tools for readers and small groups to identify and develop the “stones” God has given them to conquer the giant hardships facing them. The book’s “Training Manual” offers a five-week discipline of devotion and self-analysis.

Both Stanford and Lucado’s books are ideal for adapting into sermon series that anyone can connect with, and to which congregants will want to invite their friends and family members going through difficult times. Five Stones has, fittingly, five chapters—an ideal series length—and while You’ll Get Through This is fourteen chapters long, the related resources condense it into seven for study and preaching.

Do you preach like there is a broken heart on every pew? Everyone is going through something, major or minor, for which they need hope and encouragement to persevere. Such hope is surely evident in the gospels, but for an extended look at triumph over tragedy, look no further than the flawed, troubled, human characters of the Old Testament.

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