All of us, at some time or another, have been on the receiving end of bad news. And some might be trying to digest that news right now.
It could be family news, where things are not going well in our family relationships, where members of the family are fighting one another and there seems no end to the situation. It could be health related, where a visit to the doctor has resulted in a less than promising report. It could be the loss of a job, particularly where the prospects of finding another, in the short term, seems very unlikely, and where the prospects for the future seem pretty bleak. Or it could be something that doesn’t affect us directly, but still has that nasty effect of making us very unsettled. For example, news of a natural disaster, or war, or one of a number of other things.
When bad news comes, it can hit really hard. Then what we want is some good news. For someone to tell us it’s all a mistake or, alternatively, someone who can wave a magic wand and resolve the dilemma by making everything OK again. But as you and I know that doesn’t always happen.
Now as Christians we have the advantage of knowing a God who cares. Someone we can pray to and someone with whom we can share our troubles. But what happens when those prayers don’t seem to be answered? What happens when the trauma, the bad news, just doesn’t go away? When the tendency is to feel that God is not listening? Where are we then with our faith?
After all, how many of us are like King David? A man of faith who lived his whole life surrounded by enemies. And although he prayed many times for God to take them away, it never happened. And yet he was still confident in expressing his faith and trust in God to see him through (Psalm 23). And how many of us are like the Apostle Paul? Faced with that thorn in the flesh that so troubled him (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), that he pleaded with God three times for it to be removed. Only to realise that God wasn’t going to remove it, and that he had to face up to the fact that it was something that he had to live with.
No, not all of us are like David or Paul. In fact, many of us may be more likely to identify with the disciples. Because when told by Jesus them some bad news, they basically fell apart and lost everything.
Let me explain.
B. THE DISCIPLES
For in this passage from John’s gospel we are faced with a situation where Jesus had just delivered two bits of bad news to his disciples. News that would have left them very shaken indeed.
The first bit, directed to all of the disciples, was that he was about to leave them, and that where he was going they couldn’t follow.
Now, I want you to imagine a group of men who had left everything for their leader. They’d left their families, their businesses, everything. Jesus was their leader. He was the Messiah that the people had waited for centuries to come. And as a consequence, this group of men had dedicated several years of their lives following Jesus from town to town. But now, he had just told them that he would be betrayed, that we would leave them, and where he was going they couldn’t go with him.
And if that bit of bad news wasn’t traumatic enough, the second bit of news, directed to Peter, was that Peter would shortly deny Jesus three times. And that would not only have traumatised Peter but, as one of the leaders of the twelve, it would have had far-reaching effects on the others too. After all, if Peter, one of the most dedicated of the disciples was about to do that, then what were implications for the behaviour of the rest?
Now, of course, you can imagine their protests of the disciples. Nevertheless, like David and Paul, the trauma of the disciples was not something that Jesus was going to take away. The disciples might have wanted Jesus to say that it was all some sort of silly mistake. But Jesus couldn’t do that—he couldn’t back away from his own crucifixion. So, instead, the traumas were ones that the disciples had to cop on the chin, because they were necessary for the bigger picture.
2. Words of Comfort
It’s not surprising then, that having delivered the bad news and understanding the discomfort that his words had brought. that the very next words of Jesus were words of comfort. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’ (Jn 14:1).
The disciples may not have been able to understand why they had to face the traumas that they did, but they were necessary for the bigger picture. A bigger picture that Jesus went on to explain in terms of the necessity to go, so that he could go and prepare a place in his Father’s house for all believers (10:2-4), so that all of his disciples could enjoy living with the Father in the Father’s house. And the necessity to go, in order that another counsellor could be sent to them—the Holy Spirit (16:5-16). Someone who would teach and guide them in all things.
3. The Response of the Disciples
The end result to all of this, however, was that despite Jesus’s words of comfort, the disciples did not put their trust in Jesus. In less than twenty-four hours, Jesus was betrayed by Judas; Peter denied Jesus three times; and all of the disciples, without exception, abandoned him. And whilst the disciples’ response to the situation was tragic, there can be some comfort for us, that when we slip and fail in our trust of God, that even the greatest of Jesus’s followers had failed him too. And that is despite the fact that they had seen and witnessed many things:
a) Witnesses to Miracles
They’d seen Jesus change water into wine (2:1-11). They’d been witnesses to a healing of a person who was not even in Jesus’s presence—as the Official’s Son was reported to be healed (14:43-54). They’d seen first-hand the healing of the Paralytic at the Pool (5:1-15). They’d been there when Jesus had fed five thousand men with five small loaves and two small fish (6:1-15). They’d seen Jesus walked on water (6:16-25). They’d been there when he’d healed a Man Born Blind (9:1-12). And they had witnessed the stone being removed from Lazarus’s tomb and Lazarus raised from the dead (11:38-44).
b). The Example of Jesus
And they’d been taught by Jesus and shown by example what it was to be people of God. They were there when he cleared the temple from the abuses of money lenders and salesmen (2:12-25). They’d found Jesus showing compassion to a Samaritan woman (4:27-38). Jesus had talked many times about who he was, and what he had come to bring (5:16-47, 7:14-44). They were there when he talked about being the bread of life (6:25-59). They were there when he showed compassion to a woman caught in adultery (8:1-11). They were there when Jesus talked about being the good shepherd (10:1-21). They were firsthand witnesses when Jesus presented himself to the Jews as a king, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (12:12-19). And they were there, and probably very embarrassed, when Jesus took the role of a servant, and washed the dust off their feet (13:1-17).
(And these are just some of the references from John’s Gospel alone).
No Jesus wasn’t a stranger when he told the disciples to trust in him. They had had several years of not only clinging on to every word that he said, and they had witnessed that Jesus wasn’t just another in a line of people who claimed to be the Messiah. He actually was the genuine article. He was who he said he was.
With their background, therefore, the disciples’ betrayal, denial, and abandoning of Jesus is extra puzzling. However, on a certain level their lack of trust is understandable. Because even we sometimes get so wrapped up in our own problems, and even frustrated at the lack of solutions, that we fail to see that God still cares, and it’s just that there is a bigger picture that we don’t always see.
So, when it comes to bad news—and our reaction to it—we may well identify better with the disciples, than we do with people like David and Paul.
Now, of course, the disciples’ failure was short lived. After the resurrection, their faith and trust in Jesus became well known. The church was established, and the Gospel spread. The disciples learnt from their mistakes. They learnt to trust in God, even when things looked bleak.
And so should we. Because when bad news comes, and there doesn’t seem to be a way clear, when we’re feeling low and things are getting on top of us and prayer doesn’t seem to resolve the problem, there are a number of things that we can do that may help.
1. The Scriptures
And the first thing is that we can remind ourselves that not all of our dilemmas will be resolved in our lifetime. Because apart from scriptures that tell us about people like King David and the Apostle Paul, who had to learn to live with their problems, and apart from the fact the disciples also had to learn to face the trauma of the separation from Jesus—and crucifixion—no matter how short a time that might have been, we also have other scriptures scattered throughout the bible which suggest that troubles are part and parcel of life (Christian’s included):
From the prophet Nahum: ‘The LORD is good. He is a refuge in a day of trouble. He knows those who see refuge in him’ (Nahum 1:7). From Paul: ‘Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, and be constant in prayer’ (Romans 12:12). And of course, the words of Jesus himself: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1).
2. Experiences of the Faithful
Secondly, despite that, we can remind ourselves of the experiences of the faithful throughout the ages. We can read and think about the many wonderful things that the people of God experienced in their pilgrimages because of their faith, despite all the negative moments and times. Because despite their traumas, King David, the Apostle Paul and even in the end the disciples learnt to trust in God. Yes, they experienced hard times, but they were still blessed because of their faith.
3. Our Own Experiences
Thirdly, we can add to the experiences of the disciples by adding our own experiences of God. We can think about them, write them down. And when times get tough, we can remind ourselves of the times that God has blessed us too.
4. The Promises of Jesus
And, fourthly, we can think about the promises of Jesus to his disciples: The necessity of his death so that we can have a place to live with God. But more than that, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
At the time for the disciples, it was a future promise—a promise they had to wait until Pentecost to receive. But for us it should be an everyday reality. The Holy Spirit given to guide and direct us, and to show us the way in all things.
And then, with all these things, and with the support of one other, when we get tied up in our own problems—no matter how important they may seem, and they may seem to be very important—we might find it easier to remember that God does care. In fact, he cares more than we can possibly understand or explain. Sometimes there is a reason beyond what we know, and a bigger picture we just cannot see. And what we need to do is to trust in God and stand firm anyway.
Yes, bad news comes to all of us from time to time. Some seem to get more than others, and some seem to manage it better than others. But for some Christians, bad news is a real challenge to their faith.
However, that shouldn’t be. Because if the bible teaches anything, it’s not the quantity or depth of the trauma that is important. (After all, Job would have to have hit the jackpot in that regard—and God considered him a righteous man). No, it’s not the trauma or even the existence of it that is the issue. But it’s what one does with it, that is the thing that matters. And that’s why Jesus spoke those words to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn 14:1).
Behind the troubles of life, there will be things we will not always understand. And at times there will be things which are part of a bigger picture. What we need to learn, therefore, is that some of our troubles may not necessarily go away, and we will not always be in a position to understand why. However, Jesus does offer a helping hand, and all he asks us is to trust.
So today, yes, we have the problem of bad news, but we also have a solution. The solution may not be the answer we are looking for—because we would probably prefer that the bad news is resolved. However, even in the disciples’ case, the bad news was for a reason (even if they didn’t understand it at the time).
The question is, though, is God’s solution one we can accept? Is Jesus’s hand, one we can reach out and touch? Or do prefer to try to resolve our own traumas and dilemmas? Jesus offers us a solution. But is it one we are prepared to take?
Posted: 17th December 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis