Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us– Hebrews 12:1 ESV
For most people reading this blogpost the world they were born into did not start out as tough, challenging or threatening in any real way. In fact, it could easily be argued that the last sixty or so years have been some of the serenest and easiest in all of human history. Most of the problems and issues modern people have wrestled with have been what honest people would refer to as “first world problems”. Humans born in the western world have struggled mostly with issues that have centered around the kind of existential questions our more primitive ancestors lacked the time or inclination to ponder like “What is the meaning of life?” “Am I making a difference in this world?” and “Am I really doing what I was meant to do?” For most of us things like war, civil unrest and oppression were concepts we learned about in history books as children or by watching documentaries as adults on rainy mornings when we had little else to do.
Times are changing.
War is still not something that has touched most of our lives in a personal way (thank God). However, thanks to COVID-19, censorship, selfish leaders and a whole bunch of really bad decisions on the part of those leaders all of a sudden, the rules are changing. Civil unrest is a thing, war is suddenly imaginable and oppression feels like it is knocking on the door for too many people.
This is not the first generation of believers to find themselves in times that suddenly got tough. Far from it. From the dawn of time God’s people have been called to live, love and lead people to faith in the toughest of times. It is possible not just survive unexpected changes in our world but also to thrive in the midst of suffering and difficulty (Jeremiah 29:1-11, John 16:33, Acts 14:22). In order for that to happen we must choose to adopt the five following attitudes and practices.
Understand that sometimes God shakes things up-
From time-to-time God shakes every kingdom and people group who dwell on the earth (Hebrews 12:25-28). If He didn’t, individuals would become so self-centered and sinful that all of humanity would inevitably self-destruct. Our job as Christians is to stay resolutely on mission and lead others to God no matter what the rest of the world is doing or not doing (Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 6:37).
Refrain from pampering our weaknesses-
In early December, for no obvious reason, I began to experience a lot of pain in my left ankle. I immediately took measures to shelter the ankle. I wrapped it daily, rubbed it with icy-hot, and deliberately put most of my weight on the other leg. One day I realized the muscles in the lower part of that leg had started to atrophy and as a result my left calf was noticeably smaller than the right and I was still in constant pain. I quickly altered course and began to gently work on building strength back in that ankle. It still hurts but it’s getting better and it looks almost normal. Lord willing, I will not be permanently gimpy. It occurred to me one night as I was reading Hebrews 12:12-13 that we oftentimes trear our spiritual weaknesses the same way I treated my ankle. We shelter and protect our moral and spiritual shortcomings rather than dealing with the issues that could lead to our downfall. Tough times make it even more critical we deal decisively with shortcomings, weaknesses and moral flaws (Matthew 5:29, Hebrews 12:1-3).
Learn to embrace God’s correction-
God is the author of pleasure, joy and celebration (Deuteronomy 16:14-15, 1st Chronicles 29:22, Luke 15:23). That said, we are not here just to experience happiness or to live a life of leisure. This is where we are transformed into the image of Jesus and where we prepare for the next world (2nd Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:29, Colossians 3:9-10). This means that sometimes God will correct our thinking or deny us something we want. He doesn’t do this to be cruel but to mold us into the image of Christ and make us useful for His Kingdom.
Understand what Christian people have in Christ-
The writer of Hebrews tells us the temptation to leave the life of faith is always strongest in times of suffering, persecution or correction. Giving up, pulling back or losing faith inevitably results in a loss of personal growth, spiritual joy and eternal reward (Hebrews 10:35, 2nd John 1:8, Colossians 3:23-25). Conversely, faithfulness, especially in times of suffering always results in deeper joy now and greater personal reward later. The key to staying faithful and bold when life gets hard is to remember Jesus is and all He has done for us through His suffering (Hebrews 12:22-24). When we focus on His suffering ours suddenly feels far less permanent and significant.
Holiness is a precondition for spending eternity with God (Hebrews 12:14) Thankfully God does not leave us on our own to figure out the process for ourselves. He gives us clear direction and step-by-step instruction on how to accomplish the task but we must be persistent and intentional about pursuing it (2ndPeter 1:3-9, Colossians 3).
We have zero control over what we are born into or encounter in life. We do have power over how we respond to our circumstances. If we respond to difficult with an attitude of trust we will grow and God will use us. If we respond with anger, bitterness or by demanding God makes life easier for us difficulty will inevitably wreck us.
The choice is ours.