I don't know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with a lot of things in my life. One thing I have a love-hate relationship with is exercise. I love what it produces in my life, in terms of overall health and fitness and those kinds of things. But I can't say that I am always excited when it is time to exercise. And if my workout partner doesn't show up, I usually don't work out. But, when I am done with my workout and the endorphins have kicked in and I discover that I have greater amounts of energy during the day, and I find that I am getting a little stronger each time, I think: "Man! I love to exercise! I never want to miss a work out!" I love what it produces, but sometimes I hate doing it.
Others of us have love-hate relationships with food, work, money, or serving. And I am fairly certain that a lot of us, maybe most of us, have a love-hate relationship with spiritual growth. I know that I do. If you asked me, "Do you enjoy growing spiritually? Do you like feeling close to God? Do you like it when you're living in communion with your Heavenly Father? Do you like it when you can feel yourself growing and making progress in your Christian life?" Do I like all that? Yes, I do. But do I like what tends to position me for that kind of spiritual development? Most of the time, I don't.
Because I have found, and maybe you have too, that I do not tend to drift into spiritual growth. I do not just go with the flow and wind up being stronger, firmer and more mature in my faith. It usually takes a push for me to grow spiritually. And the name of that push is usually pain or trouble or hardship of one kind or another. I don't like it! I would do almost anything to avoid it, but the truth is I just don't tend to grow much without it.
It's a curious thing about us, isn't it? That the one thing that tends to nudge us towards spiritual growth more than any other is the one thing everybody wants to avoid. It's the gift that nobody wants.
Do you understand that pain, trouble and difficulties are a gift? Look with me at what Paul said in:
Philippians 1:29 (NKJV) For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,
In order to enable the Philippian Christians to bear up under persecution, Paul reminded them and us that suffering is as much a part of God's eternal purpose for our lives as believing in Christ.
The verse says, "It has been granted" - that is the Greek verb charizomai, which comes from charis, which means: "grace." So charizomai is grace. Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says, "Charizomai primarily denotes to show favor or kindness as in Galatians 3:18; to give freely, bestow graciously." Paul is saying that suffering is a gift of God's grace. Do you think of your times of trouble as a "gift" of God's grace? Not likely. And that's our problem - we don't understand that suffering is a gift. God says that it is, do you believe Him?
" For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe" - he compares suffering with salvation. Both are grace gifts. Salvation is a gift, according to Ephesians 2:8-9, and so is suffering. He doesn't say that suffering is punishment or that it is something that has happened to you by chance. God gives suffering as graciously and lovingly as He gives you the faith to believe in His Son.
Suffering is a gift, a privilege. What is a gift? It is something that reveals the giver's love for you; a gift is undeserved, not earned; a gift should cause thankfulness and gratitude. When is the last time you thanked God when you were suffering?
If this is the nature of a gift, how can Paul say that suffering is a gift of God? God giving suffering as a gracious gift doesn't make any sense to us. That we should be grateful for it, that it should make us feel honored and blessed, that we should see it as a manifestation of God's love - that doesn't make sense to us. But that is what the Scriptures teach - suffering is a gift of God's grace.
I was talking with David Bailey last week, and we got on the subject of trials. He said that his neighbor had shared the gospel with him many times, but he didn't pay any attention to it until he was going through a trial. In the midst of his trial, he put his trust in the Lord. I think that is true of many of us.
I have hunch that if I were to take a survey as to what it was that launched most of us into a spiritual search, or brought us to the point of trusting Christ as our Savior, or nudged us towards significant spiritual growth, right at the top of the list would be pain, hardship or difficulty of some kind or another. And this is precisely the point the Bible makes over and over again. It is the trials of life that cause our faith to grow.
Notice carefully what Paul says in:
2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (NKJV) For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, THAT WE SHOULD NOT TRUST IN OURSELVES BUT IN GOD WHO RAISES THE DEAD,
Trials have the same purpose in our lives, they keep us from trusting in ourselves. They show us how weak we are and how much we need to be defendant upon God.
In other words, there is an upside to hardship if we can only look at it from a biblical perspective. I don't want to minimize or discount the pain or hardship that any one of us might be experiencing today. Nevertheless, I am going to ask you to look for just a second to see if it might not be true that your suffering might serve you well - that there might be some upside to the hardship that you are facing or will face that will help extend the limits of your faith and enlarge the size of your heart in ways that nothing else can.
A first upside to hardship is this: Hardship tends to strengthen our faith.
2 Corinthians 1:9 (NKJV) Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,
The word "that" is the Greek word hina, which could be translated: "in order that." It's a purpose clause. It is during the times of suffering and persecution that we learn to trust in God.
Trials and trouble help us grow because they cause us to turn to God, to trust in Him. All of our problems help us to learn to trust in God. Just as an athlete strengthens his muscles by pushing them to their limits, so God strengthens our faith by pushing its limits. Only trials can do this. Pain has a way of forcing us to clarify where our trust is, doesn't it?
Look at what the author of Hebrews said about faith:
Hebrews 11:6 (NKJV) But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
There is no way our life can be pleasing to God apart from faith. He is pleased with us when we trust Him.
Our life of faith begins when we trust Jesus Christ for our eternal salvation. Forsaking any goodness or merit in ourselves, we look to Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. We do not deserve, nor can we earn our salvation, it is a gift of God's grace. Once we have trusted Jesus Christ for salvation, we begin the life of faith. All believers have faith, but they don't all have the same amount of faith. There are degrees of faith, and we are to always be growing in our faith. Luke 17:5: "And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith." They had a desire to grow and so should we. In 2 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul said, "We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly," Paul commended them for their growth in faith.
Our faith grows as we learn to trust God in the midst of life's most difficult situations.
2 Corinthians 12:9 (NKJV) And He said to me, "MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR YOU, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
God gave this promise to the apostle Paul and all who will trust Him. "My grace is sufficient for you." The word "grace" can be defined as: "Free and unmerited favor shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgment." But grace is also used in the Bible to mean: "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances."
John Calvin, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:9, said, "Here the word grace does not mean as elsewhere God's favor but is used by metonymy for the help of the Holy Spirit which comes to us from God's undeserved favor."
We use the word grace in this sense in modern speech. Have you ever heard anyone say, "By God's grace I was able to remain calm"? When we use the word grace this way, we are referring to: "God's power that enables us to deal with life's circumstances." In other words, "Apart from the enabling power of God, I would never have been able to do this or that".
God designed His creation to have a dependency upon Him. Even in the ordinary decisions of a day we need to depend on God for wisdom and direction. The Fall itself was precipitated when man sought to live independently of God, and this human independence continues at the heart of sinful rebellion today.
God wants us, as His children, to always be aware of our need of Him in our lives. God often takes us through difficult situations in order that we might realize how much we need to trust in Him. A self-sufficient attitude is detrimental to our relationship with God. So, to keep us from self-sufficiency, He brings trials and problems that remind us how much we need Him.
Statistics tell us that somewhere between 80-90% of all Americans have at least some kind of general belief in God, but when you look more closely at those statistics, you discover that those notions about God are not very well defined. As long as things in our lives are going smoothly, most of us are content to sail through life with this vague notion about a god who might be out there. But then pain comes along and broadsides us. We lose our job, someone we love gets sick or dies, we face health issues, we face a financial crisis, a relationship falls apart, and so on.
All of a sudden, we are rocked to the core. And we discover that those vague notions about God aren't working for us anymore. So we start asking questions we never asked before, or at least we start asking them with a new passion. It's no longer an intellectual exercise but it's life and death. We start asking things like: " What is God really like? "Why doesn't God do something about my pain? Why did he let it happen at all? What do I really believe about God? And how much of what I believe is based on intuition or wishful thinking and how much is based on what God says about himself in His word?" And on and on the questions go.
Eventually, hardship always brings us to the place where we have to deal with the fundamental question about our faith, and that is: "Will I keep on following God, obeying him, trusting him, even when I hurt and there seems to be no answer or solution to my pain? Will I follow God even in the darkness?"
Everyone who has ever suffered who claims to have faith in God has had to answer that question. The Apostle Paul had to answer it in the face of the hardship he faced.
2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NKJV) We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
In other words, whatever hardship comes our way, it will not overwhelm us, if we trust in God.
Job had to answer that question when confronted with the loss of everything in this world that was precious to him. His response was, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." (Job 13:16)
Jesus answered that question in the Garden as he faced the agony of death on a cross: "Not my will. Your will be done." (Matt. 26:35)
Many years ago, I faced a life threatening illness and had to make a decision whether I was going to trust in my God or give in to fear. The question that our faith is confronted with in a trial is: "Will I trust God even if I can't see his face, when life is hard, and there seems to be no end to our struggle in sight?"
This is the core question for life and eternity that reveals the depth of our faith. It reveals whether our faith is based on God doing something for us, making life easier, insulating us from pain; or whether it's based on the truth of who God is, his character and our relationship with him regardless of any blessing he might give. One author calls this "the journey from god to God". The journey from little "g" god to big "G" God!
What about you? Have you made that journey? Hardship, if we let it do its work in us, will tend to reveal whether we are serving a little "g" god who exists to make me happy and protect me from pain; or a Big "G" God who is true, and who is bigger than whatever hardship we might face and is deserving of our full devotion. Unless, and until, we face hardship, we will never really know how mature or deep our faith in God really is.
A workman was employed on a building project - one of those high-rise deals. It was necessary, because of some deadlines and bad weather, for them to work at night. While busy on the edge of the wall, he slipped, lost his balance, fell over the edge, grabbed the edge of the wall with both hands, and hung on desperately. He began to scream and cry and call for someone to rescue him. It was pitch black, riveting machines were going, metal hammers were beating and pounding, mechanical motors were running; and nobody could hear a word. Gradually, his arms grew numb as he hung suspended over the street below, and his fingers began to slip and against every effort of his own will to hold on, at last he lost his hold and he fell...about three inches to a scaffold that had been there all the time. The darkness prevented him from seeing it. And all through his anxiety, he was completely safe.
We are so often terrified by our predicaments while all the time there's the scaffold of God's care beneath us. Our ignorance doesn't change the certainty, but it does destroy the peace, doesn't it? We need to remember that underneath are the everlasting arms, and you don't know that until your fingers slip, and you drop.
That leads us to a second upside to hardship.
Hardship tends to produce growth in Christlike character.
Not only does trouble tend to strengthen our faith, it's one of the things, perhaps the primary means, by which God makes us more like Jesus in our practice. Paul writes:
2 Corinthians 4:10-11 (NKJV) always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
The story is told of a sculptor who was working on a statue of Robert E. Lee. He took a block of granite, chiseled away at it for months. When it was finished, the people who saw it and knew what General Lee looked like, were moved to ask: "How were you able to make that piece of granite look like Robert E. Lee?" His answer: "I just chipped away all the pieces that didn't look like him."
The Bible teaches that God wants us to look like his Son, and throughout our lives, he is chipping away all the parts of us that don't look like Jesus. The tool he tends to use most often to chip away those pieces is pain, trouble or hardship of one form or another.
The truth is (and while we don't like it, we know that it's true): we will never become Christ like in our conduct without the chisel of hardship chipping away our rough edges.
Now, I said on this point that hardship tends to produce Christlike character. It's not automatic. We all know people who have experienced hardship, and it's only made them more bitter and angry. They become self-absorbed, selfish, less loving, less content. Some even turn away from God. The difference between those who grow through hardship and those who don't seems to be that those who grow trust God to get them through their struggle. Instead of rejecting God or blaming him, they seek him with greater passion. They face their pain honestly. They cry out to God. They include him in the process AND they yield to God as he uses hardship to shape their character into Christlikeness. They say: "I am not going to fight you on this one. Mold me and shape me through this. I want to become more like YOU!"
I don't know if you've noticed, but I have seen that people who have experienced deep pain and loss and yet have trusted God through it tend to manifest some very unique qualities, qualities that we see in Jesus himself.
Paul tells us that trials produce character:
Romans 5:3-4 (NKJV) And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Have you ever been house-hunting, and the agent said "I've got a great property for you to look at. It's an older home, but it has character." When a real estate agent says it has "character", it's about like saying a blind-date has a "good personality." You know the house may not be beautiful, but most likely it will look like it has weathered some storms.
The word translated "character" can also be translated "proof." Another good term is "staying power." When you weather storms, you have a chance to prove to the world what you're made of, and prove to the world how God is faithful to protect you through trials.
All kinds of records have been set in major league sports. Most of them have to do with a player's performance in a single-game, or a particular season. Cal Ripken Jr.'s record (he has played more than 2400 baseball games consecutively) is different. It is not a record that can be attributed to talent, but character. He has proven that he has the drive to hit the field every day, even when his body hurts, or his head aches, or his nose is runny, or he's got personal problems, or he's in a slump, or he doesn't feel like playing that particular day. We don't have to wonder if Cal Ripken Jr. is a great player; his record is proof that he is.
When you endure suffering, you develop staying power. Staying power proves to yourself and to the world that you mean business.
People who have experienced deep pain and loss, and yet have trusted God through it, also tend to have an enormous capacity for empathy and compassion. They tend to extend Jesus' kind of love to others more freely and with a kind of healthy self-forgetfulness that communicates volumes to the people who are the recipients of that love.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NKJV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Suffering teaches us to trust in God, and as God comforts us in our trouble, we are able then to comfort others in trouble. I think you will agree with me that those who can comfort you most in a trial are those who have been through the same type of trial. They know exactly what you are going through. They tend to be people of faithful prayer. Pain-scarred people know, to the core of their being, that only God can mend a broken heart. They know from experience that Only God can really restore energy and hope on the inside of someone who has lost hope. So they are tireless in bringing others before God in prayer. When they say they will pray for you, you know that they will follow through!
And I find that people who have allowed pain and hardship to do its work in them tend to be people who have learned contentment in every circumstance. They have a peace in the midst of difficulty that surpasses understanding, because they have walked through pain and discovered that God can be trusted.
Hardship-tested people tend to be grateful people. They find joy in the simplest things in life. They tend to be more gracious and forgiving than most people. And so on. They aren't perfect by any means, but they are growing in Christlike character.
I think, as I'm describing this right now, most of us are saying: "I'd like to be that kind of person. I'd like to be that kind of friend. I'd like to spread that kind of grace. I'd like to have those kinds of character qualities. I'd like to be more like Jesus."
But the question is: Do we really want those character qualities? Do we? Because the Bible would say: We can grow in those and other character qualities demonstrated by Jesus, but it generally won't come from sailing on smooth waters all the time. For those qualities to be shaped in us, we will have to experience some trouble. Because hardship tends to produce Christ like character qualities in us!
Suffering is a gift that nobody wants, but we should welcome it if we want to be Christ like.