Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dealing with the Inevitable Hardships

Life is a stroll in the park when things are going well, but how do we deal with it when the burdens of life are crushing us? Secular counseling locates the answer in the self. “You can do it; you’ve got what it takes.” However, life often has its way of showing us that we can’t do it! Life comes well stocked with a generous array of opportunities to fail. Only one can be the valedictorian; only one will get the promotion; only one will win the 100 yard dash. Even when we do win the race, we can’t stay on top of the pack for long.

Disappointments abound. Our children aren’t who we hoped they’d be. Our mates fail us, and we fail ourselves, and then we disease, decay and eventually die. How then can we cope? We can place our trust in ourselves, strive to get ahead of the pack and control life’s challenges, but not for long. Our flimsy frame has its breaking point.

We even the lack the ability to lift ourselves off the ground. The Psalmist likens us to helpless sheep but also proclaims, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). It is inevitable that we will be afraid, because there is just too much of life that is out of our control. There are just too many situations that humble and inform us, “You don’t have what it takes!” So here are some thoughts about handling the hardships:

TRUST AND PRAY: There are only two types of people: those who realize that life is bigger than them, and those who don’t. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Jesus taught that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:4-5). Therefore, hardship and helplessness is an opportunity to cry out to the greater Hope. In this way, hardships are potentially a positive and not the negative we generally tend to feel that they are.

Hardships and trials teach us the obvious truth – life is bigger than us and therefore, we can’t trust in ourselves. This is the valuable lesson that Paul learned:

• We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8-9)

Without hardships, we will never come to trust in God. It’s just too comfortable and rewarding to trust in ourselves with the assurance that we are in control. However, once our eyes are open to the fact that we are not an appropriate object of self-trust, the door swings open to God-trust and a deeper appreciation of the necessity of prayer.

If it is the case that we really can’t learn trust and consequently prayer without suffering, then we should learn how to welcome it.

SELF-EXAMINATION: Sometimes, we bring the pain upon ourselves through our sins that we haven’t confessed. The Apostle Paul admonished us to “examine” ourselves:

• But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (1 Cor. 11:31-32)

Even when our Lord does judge us, He does so for our own good. However, if we learn to first examine and judge ourselves, we would not have to endure God’s painful disciplinary actions.

This, however, is not easy. It’s sometimes impossible. We have been blinded by years of denial (Proverbs 21:2). Jesus likens our self-imposed blindness to a log in our eyes (Matthew 7:1-5). While we are quick to see the faults in others, our own faults are conveniently banished from our sight in our futile attempt build self-esteem and self-righteousness. King David therefore prayed:

• Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

Ordinarily, it’s just too painful to get an eyeful of ourselves. It is therefore noteworthy that someone would pray for such a humiliating self-revelation. It can be very depressing and psychologically destabilizing. However, David knew that ultimately this was the path to peace and relational restoration:

• Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)

CONFESSION: This can be so liberating. When we sin, we have only two choices. We can rationalize our sin away or we can humble ourselves by confessing it. When we deny or rationalize our sin, it’s still there, despite our heroic effects to silence our conscience, and poisons us and our relationships. However, when we take full responsibility for our sin and confess it, there is a relief, even if the other person refuses to accept our humble apology. But how much more peace we derive when our confession is accepted:

• He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

If you don’t think that you have any failings to confess, you might meditate on these verses:

• Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philip. 2:3-4)

This should humble all of us and cause us to cry out, “God, forgive me my sins. Make me more like You, walking in love towards others!” Yes, these reminders can ordinarily be very discouraging. Therefore, we need to quickly confess and entrust our moral failures to the Lord, knowing that He completely forgives and cleanses us from any wrongdoing (1 John 1:9-10).

REHEARSING SCRIPTURE: I boast to my students that I am the least cool person. When frustrated, I usually throw an embarrassing hissy-fit. Fortunately, they have become shorter in duration. I remind myself that my Savior is working everything together for good (Romans 8:28), even my regular fits. I also remind myself that through my failures and weaknesses, He is perfecting me (2 Cor. 12:9-10). In other words, He is able and willing to turn any of my negatives into positives. Consequently, my weaknesses have become my strengths. Therefore, I need not despair or become an object of self-contempt. I am in His hands and have become His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10), completely.

I know that to many, this represents no more than empty platitudes. Understandably, we want to be changed and to ride above the clawing hardships. Filling our minds with Biblical thoughts often seems to be little better than an umbrella in a hurricane. So let me invite you to do a little thought experiment:

• Imagine that you have just been discharged from the hospital after quadruple bypass surgery. The next morning, you are awaken by intense pain and are terrified. Your surgeon examines you thoroughly and then pronounces his judgment: “The pain you are now experiencing is the best-case scenario. It shows that you are responding perfectly to the surgery.

If you trust your surgeon, you might still experience the same pain, but your orientation to it will be entirely different. What you had experienced as a negative is now regarded as a positive, and you leave encouraged.

We need a Biblical re-orientation in the way we think. We are not fundamentally transformed through the changing of our emotions, but through the renewal of our thinking (Romans 12:2). We need to perceive the hand of God in the midst of the trials. When we understand them as positives, we will not experience them as negatives. Yes, they’ll still be painful:

• No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

The more we come to see how God uses the hardships to produce “a harvest of righteousness,” the more we will welcome them without grumbling. We also need to recognize that they are essential if we are going to be like Jesus:

• We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

If this is the case, then trials are to be welcomed. He has taught me so much through the humbling experience of hardships. For one thing, it has revealed to me who I really am. It has begun to produce a “harvest of righteousness.” The more that I have come to understand how unworthy I am of the slightest “thank you” from my God, the more I have come to understand His grace and to love Him for first loving unworthy me. It has taught me patience and forgiveness for others. If my Savior has been so patient and forgiving with me, how then can I withhold forgiveness from others?

Not only have these revelations produced gratefulness for my God, they have also made me grateful for what I have – my work, health and wife. Once I realized that I wasn’t a king who deserved kingly recognition, I learned to be content with what I have.

I don’t like hardships, but I’ve learned to welcome them knowing that I need them. One friend facing serious surgery sagely confided that although he is not looking forward to it, he knows that it will draw him closer to his wife. Ironically, it will probably draw him closer to his God also!

Our hardships will also prepare us to meet our God.
We often wonder, “Why is life in this body so difficult, especially since we have Jesus?” For one thing, we are taught that in this body we “groan” (2 Cor. 5:17) as our Lord is refining our faith (1 Peter 4:17). For another thing, we are not supposed to be too comfortable here. The Hebrew believers weren’t. Their hardships inclined them to long for their “heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16), and this pleased their God. Likewise, our suffering inclines our longings upward:

• In this [hope] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Here’s a very significant aspect of the refinement of our faith. Jesus is our ultimate lover. He loves us with a love that transcends anything we can imagine (Eph. 3:17-20). Consequently, He jealously dotes upon us so that His love might be reciprocated in a somewhat appropriate way. His intention is that when He comes for us, we will be ready to go with Him. Therefore, it is His deepest desire that our faith will be such that we will “praise, glory and honor [Him] when [He] is revealed.”

How tragic if would be that, when He finally comes for us, we’d respond, “Great to see you, Jesus, but I wonder if you could postpone our wedding for a couple of months. I have an awards banquet coming up and I was hoping to catch the World Series. Besides, we have a Caribbean cruise planned. Well…you understand.” Instead, trials are intended to make our faith cry out for His coming.

The Jewish nation required 40 years of preparation in the desert before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. We too are being prepared to meet our Promised Messiah in His Promised Land. Let us therefore consider lightly our lives here and greatly esteem the hardships that are preparing us for our final home!

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