Snakes and ladders

Christopher Seaman, 18 June 2023

Romans 5:1–8; Matthew 9:35–10:8

‘Of course’, said the vicar, standing in the pulpit, ‘none of us is perfect. I mean, is anybody here perfect?’ He looked round his church, and to his surprise a man at the back was holding up his hand. ‘Your hand is up, sir. Are you perfect?’ ‘No’, replied the man, ‘I’m not perfect. I’m acting as proxy for my wife’s first husband.’

‘The trouble with St Paul’, said one friend of mine, ‘is that he’s too perfect, and I can’t identify with him’. That seems a little unfair on St Paul, who described himself as ‘the chief of sinners’.

Anyway, in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, Paul suggests a way forward when we experience any kind of suffering, loss or tragedy – a way that we can even gain from in the end. It’s a sort of ladder:

Suffering produces endurance, says Paul.
Endurance produces character.
Character produces hope.

But you and I know very well that it doesn’t always work that way, either for us or for our friends.

Suffering can lead not to endurance, but to defeat.
Defeat can lead not to character but to negativity.
And negativity can lead not to hope but to despair.

So we have a situation a bit like snakes and ladders. We have Paul’s ladder: suffering, endurance, character, hope; and we have many people’s snakes: suffering, defeat, negativity, despair.

Which are you? Which am I? Are we stuck with whatever personality we’re born with? People whose glass is always half full, or half empty? The American author Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

So how can we as Christians become ladder people, moving up towards hope, not snake people, moving downwards to despair? Is it a simple choice, like a New Year’s resolution? ‘I resolve that I will be nicer this year.’ And by January 2nd we’ve been nasty again! So that’s not a good enough basis for something that goes so deep within us.

How can we as Christians become ladder people, moving up towards hope, not snake people, moving downwards to despair?

No, says Paul, we have two solid grounds for trusting the ladder up to hope, as if the ladder has two secure feet. And both these grounds are about the same thing: seeing things the way God sees them. First of all, ourselves. Do we see ourselves as God sees us, being ‘at peace with God’, as Paul says here? He also wrote to the Corinthians that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’. So whatever we’ve done, whatever we’ve been, we are reconciled and at peace with God. Do we see ourselves that way?

The other secure foot of our ladder is, in St Paul’s words, ‘The love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’. Do we see ourselves, do I see myself, as greatly loved by God?

Many years ago I heard a sermon where we were encouraged to do two things at home every day. First, to just sit and let God love us – a sort of silent meditation. This may not suit everybody, but I found it a help at the time. And second, to pray for the Holy Spirit in our lives that day. I sometimes wonder what would happen to a church – any church – if all its members prayed for the Holy Spirit every day.

Back to Paul’s letter: ‘Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope’. Now, what about ‘hope’? There’s a wonderful passage in the letter to the Hebrews where hope is described as ‘an anchor within the veil’. The whole point about an anchor is that you can’t see it. You can’t understand what it’s doing, because it’s hidden ‘within the veil’, the veil of water, but you know when it’s holding your boat safe.

We all have many things in our lives that are within a veil – things we just can’t understand, often involving disappointment, tragedy, suffering or loss. Unanswered questions. I’ll tell you a couple of mine. Why did my father die when I was 18? Why have two of my godchildren had cancer, and one of them (Laura Liepins, who was on our prayer list) die of it? You will have had similar, probably far worse, experiences ‘within the veil’ of unanswered questions. They could drive us down the snake towards despair rather than up St Paul’s ladder towards hope.

But remembering the two secure feet of the ladder, we could try each day to become aware of how much God loves us, and how he sees us as being at peace with him. And then to pray for the Holy Spirit, so that whatever happens, our glass will be half, or even just a quarter, full of hope.