Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
I’m huge fan of M. Scott Peck, and his book The Road Less Traveled was transformational. And yet, the concepts and principles he discusses are practices and ideals that must be lived out in order to be truly appreciated. And this idea that ‘life is inherently difficult’ is most certainly one of them.
I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t especially challenging for a person of faith, because even though we know we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), we still pretty much believe that if we do good, we ought to get good. When we don’t get good, we think something is wrong with us, the system, or perhaps even God. To accept the fact that life is hard (as an ongoing reality), regardless of how good/holy/devote we might be – is a really hard pill to swallow. Even when we do begin to accept that fact, what are not always sure what we are supposed to do with it?
Before, I attempt to address that question specifically, let me set the context for my perspective.
I have known a good bit of hardship in my life. Not complaining. Just reality. My family immigrated to the United States when I was barely 3 years old. We were the first family (out of entire extended family) to leave the Netherlands. I rarely saw my grandparents, didn’t get to hang out with aunts, uncles or cousins. My given name was a rather common Dutch name “Pieter Kok” – but in the States it was pronounced Peter Cock – and let’s just say I dreaded role call on the first day of school. My mom was a POW during WWII and dealt with severe depression, especially after my youngest brother died two weeks after he was born. I had a four-year run abusing drugs and alcohol. Was arrested. My dad died in boating accident. Lived for several years in a repossessed mobile home with the two kids under 5. Lost a 17-year-old nephew in a car accident. I have had three motorcycle accidents and five cancer surgeries. And the list could go on.
We probably all have our lists
The point being, just as Peck said, life is difficult. John Maxwell, the highly regarded leadership guru says it this way, Everything worthwhile is uphill. Even Jesus said, In this world you will have trouble (John 16:33). No exception clauses. No outs for good behavior. Life is hard for everyone.
So, what do we with that reality?
In the forty years I have served as a pastor, I have walked with many people through some of the most difficult seasons of life. In doing so, I have discovered three truths worth keeping in full view. They are easy to articulate, and not so easy to apply. However, sign posts can be quite helpful as we are trying to find your way through.
Hard is hard
Even when we know something will be difficult, we are often surprised by how hard, hard really is. Maybe its because we hear that word so often. Many things are described as hard.
- Man that test was hard!
- That was a really hard rain last night!
- It is hard to hit round ball with a round bat!
- Those concerts tickets were so hard to get!
Therefore, when someone suggests that life itself is hard, we can easily underestimate the depth of it until we are in the middle of something really complicated and challenging. Then we start thinking, “Wait a minute, this is seriously difficult!” We are taken aback by it and more than a bit surprised by its debilitating pain, causing us to wonder about the purpose behind the hardship. Why so hard??
The problem of pain is one of the oldest and most difficult theological conundrums ever discussed, and I do not mean to suggest I can solve it here, but several things are worth mentioning.
- The World is Broken
We really don’t like to talk about sin. It reminds of sweaty preachers pounding their Bibles admonishing everyone to repent. The notion of sin feels old-fashioned and unsophisticated. But, that doesn’t make the reality of sin any less relevant. In our more honest days, we all know that a high percentage of our trouble is not just a product of our making an innocent mistake, or being too tired, or misunderstanding the situation. The plain truth is that we got in trouble because we were self-willed and rebellious. We wanted what we wanted and there was no one who could convince us otherwise. The Biblical term for that sin. We all sin (Romans 3:10). And people have been sinning for a long time. Think for a moment about the multiplied effects of generations of sinfulness. It effects everything. Everything and everyone is broken. The fact that the world isn’t in a greater mess is actually a reflection of God’s mercy. But, the stain of sin (our own and others) makes life difficult for us all!
- His Ways are Higher
One of the greater challenges of life, is realizing that we have a skewed self-centered view on what God is doing. We tend to evaluate God’s actions against our own standard of right and good. Actually, more accurately, we judge his activity from a very personal orientation. We instinctively think: “How does what he is doing effect me and my life?” We are convinced we know what’s best, and we are appalled when God doesn’t conform to our predetermined ideal. However, humility requires that we acknowledge that we do not have an objective perspective. Our values and ideals are shaped by self-interest. Understandably so. We think through the grid of what is best for us. God however, thinks through a much broader point of view. What seems totally unthinkable to us (personally) may make the most sense for the larger purposes of God. And because we do not have the benefit of this broader perspective, some of what he does feels extremely unfair. This is why the prophet Isaiah has to remind us of this foundational truth – his ways are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9).
- We Don’t Know What We Have Been Spared
We have no cognitive awareness of what we have not experienced. We have have no logical reason even to consider it. I am not trying to be philosophically clever at this point. But, if something didn’t happen (that could have happened) then we wouldn’t have any reason to be grateful for what we were spared. I am confident that there are many things that were headed our way, that God, in his mercy, protected us from. We never knew about it, and therefore, have no reason to be grateful for the protection from it, because we had no inkling it was even coming our way. Only heaven will reveal all the ways God protected us from the evil that was supposed to befall us. The reality we need to appreciate today is that however hard we have had it – it could have been (and maybe should have been) – much worse!
Those that survive the hardest struggles of life have two things in common.
First, they recognize that they cannot do it alone. This may sound like a broken record, but no one (read no one), can make it alone. I think this is probably a modern Western phenomenon, but there is an undercurrent in the minds of many Christians that “me and Jesus” can get this figured out on our own. That isn’t Biblical. It isn’t wise – and it has been the demise of all too many followers of Jesus. Because the fact of the matter is that we need to develop our community long before we think we will need it. So, unless we buy the truth about community (by faith), we won’t do the work needed to create it – until its too late – and then (unfortunately) it will not be enough.
Second, at the risk of sounding cliche’, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. One of the most disheartening parts of pastoral ministry is watching people jump off the bus when things get hard. And, on one hand, I get it. It can feel like God isn’t keeping up with his end of the bargain. Who wants to hurt? Just numb the pain! But, the fact is that every other solution we come up with only makes matters worse, which is why I so appreciate what Peter said to Jesus, (when everyone was else was walking away). Jesus turned to the disciples, and said, “Are you guys going too?” And Peter replied, “Lord, where would we go, you have the words of life!” (John 6:68)
All that to say, life really is hard. Welcome to the struggle bus. The good thing about the bus is that other people are on it. I am too. If you ever want to slip into the seat next to me, I’d be glad to chat. Let’s talk