Ecclesiastes (7:13) is "Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?" Thomas Boston (1676-1732) wrote a wonderful book on this "The Crook in the Lot" which I found amazingly helpful. Boston was a pastor and lived a very obscure life in a tiny Scottish town called Ettrick. Crucially, he was well acquainted with suffering and the book is permeated with deep wisdom from the many sufferings that came into his "lot". He struggled with a hostile church that was deeply divided. His wife Catherine was a chronic depressive. Not surprising when one reads that of their 10 children 6 died in infancy. They had already buried one son called Ebenezer (which means "Up to now has God helped us") when they had another son born. Should they risk calling him Ebenezer also, given the tragically ironic nature of the name if he also died? They did name him Ebenezer and he also died.
What does Boston have to say? Boston argues that God deliberately allows each of us to have a "crook" i.e. something that pains us or causes us problems in our lot, our life. God often causes this "special trial" to be on the very thing that most rivals him in our life. So, for example, if we are proud and self-sufficient then it might be a dangerous illness that makes us trust in Him and realize our own utter helplessness. Think of the rich young ruler whom Jesus commanded to sell all he had - Jesus knew that money was the thing keeping him from faith. God, the loving father, trains us as it were, as a father trains his children, to make us more like Himself. He causes us to be aware of the sin that is in us and needs removing. None of this at all means that if we suffer it’s because we have been particularly sinful. That may be so, but rather Boston is arguing the exact opposite: that ALL Christians will find a "crook in their lot."
What's the remedy? Firstly, praying for God to help. God put the crook in, he can take it out. God is intensely loving and sympathetic to us in our sufferings - Psalm 103 "As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust". God uses our "crooks" to draw us to Himself, to make us pray. I find that very true in my own life. God may want to straighten us rather than straighten the crook. If God is speaking to us through our suffering, we need to first listen to what he says - while praying of course that he will remove it. This is very far from fatalism. We are not helplessly swept around by the currents of life, like a leaf on a river, but are being expertly steered by a helmsman who loves us and died for us.
We need faith and humility. Faith in that we believe that suffering is NOT random, but that God has a purpose in all that happens to us, "A wise eyeing of the hand of God in all that we find hard to bear". For some of us, that truth is very hard to understand, it may only be for some of us when we meet the Lord face to face that we finally understand it. And above all humility. Perhaps the most used verse by Boston is 1 Peter 5:6 & 7:
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you."
These two verses, friends, are linked. If we realise that God is God of the whole universe, that we in the cosmic scheme of things are utterly nothing and are weak and sinful, then we will see God as he is and ourselves as we are. Then we will come to God in our time of need for help and will find him full of mercy. God most of all wants to make us like Jesus, who also, of course, went through the most terrible "crook" of all - that he, despite being sinless, had to suffer on the cross for our sins.
Collect Epiphany 4
Lord God, you know that we are in the midst of such dangers and that we cannot always stand upright because of the frailty of our nature: grant us strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen