The epistle for today’s Morning Prayer is 1 Cor. 10:1-13. It retells how the Israelites, “though baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” and yet still thousands disobeyed and were punished. It then ends with the famous bit:
11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.
I included the 14th verse not in the reading and in NRSV considered the beginning of the next paragraphs. Harold Kushner, in his classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People has a nice anecdote about this passage’s use [citation coming]. He recalls ministering to a congregant in a hospital and overhearing a Christian doing the same to a woman who had just lost her son in surgery. The pastor reminded her that God would not test her beyond her strength and the woman’s very rational response was, “so you mean if I was not so strong my son would still be with me?!” I cannot say that I have not cited this passage to attempt to encourage someone in a difficult time, however I do not believe I have ever done so to someone grieving such a loss. Certainly not in the last two years. My instinct to reading to reading Kushner’s account, which I am sure is true, is to assume that the passage has been misapplied. But until the reading came up in MP today, I had not fully considered it.
Upon reflection, I still think that this is a passage that has been misinterpreted and misapplied. If we read this passage in context we realize it is about discipline, idolatry, and sexual desires.
Rather Paul’s example from Exodus is one of the effect of lack of faith.
Paul also tells his audience that they are the ones to “whom the ends of the ages have come” and so they are to look to the past as examples for them to learn from. Jesus has ascended into heaven, as Moses on the mountain, and they may grow restless waiting for his return. When they do, Paul says, they must be careful not to look for society to provide the means of comfort and support though idolatry and remember what happened to the Israelites when they took that route.
What lesson is to be learned? That when your child dies unexpectedly that God will give you strength? Although I believe that to be true, God does comfort and support us even through the most difficult of times, that is not the lesson here. Rather Paul’s example from Exodus is one of the effect of lack of faith. The Israelites had come so far and see so many miracles and yet still they were unable to wait a handful of days for Moses to return. They had to have a physical, tangible idol to worship. They felt they needed to do something other than to wait in faith. Paul is encouraging his audience to perseverance. Just before this passage he writes,
1 Cor. 9:24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.
This is the trial, the testing that Paul speaks about. It is the temptation to settle for lesser gods, the social pressures around them and to succumb to idols that might bring a physical comfort in this world when with faith, patience, and perseverance we will inherit an eternal kingdom.
So if I have ever used this passage in a poor attempt at comforting those who mourn, I am truly sorry. It is true that the loss of a child or any loved one is something that is “common to everyone” even if in today’s society we act surprised when it does happen. And I do believe that God can and does provide us with the strength and comfort to endure even the most tragic and devastating of losses. As the Collect for today reminds us, God has sent his “Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.” He is present with us and grieves with and for us and, perhaps of the greatest comfort, we will see our son again in the World to Come.
But this passage is not about that. This passage is about having the strength of will to resist the temptation of the pressures of our culture and society. God is present with us also to enable us to endure the call to place work above worship, sex above love, and wealth before faithfulness. It is a reminder, just as Exodus was for Paul, that our greatest danger is when we think that we are strong and can mange on our own (“if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall”). Yet even then, even after the fall, God is faithful.