Suffering has it’s Up Side

In fourth grade we had an incubator in class filled with eggs. Day after day we looked into the incubator to see if there were any tell-tale signs of cracks in the eggs that would be the sign that the chicks inside were beginning to hatch. When that first chick started to peck its way out of the shell we gathered around, mesmerized. Bit by tiny bit the opening got bigger. With its miniature beak the little chick worked and worked to get out. As more of the shell was broken away we could see the chick breathing heavy and straining to get out. One of the students asked if we shouldn’t help it and take away some of the shell. Our teacher told us that even though we thought that would help, in the long run it would actually harm the baby chick. She said that it was critical that the chick do this for itself because that helped it to develop the muscles and strength it would need to survive in the future. Our desire to help the chick so that it did not have to struggle and suffer as it worked its way out of the shell, while commendable, would actually harm the chick in the long run.

That lesson never left me. To my amazement, years later I came upon that same lesson in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He talks about the positive nature of facing hardship and struggles and how God uses them to shape our character.

1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5

How different is that from the common cultural value we have that says any and all hardship, suffering, struggle, or pain is bad and to be avoided at all costs? We cannot avoid hardship. We cannot avoid pain. It is part of life in a world infected with sin and rebellion against God. Being a Christian does not save you from hardship. In fact the opposite is promised. Follow Jesus and you will be persecuted, you will be called on to sacrifice. You will be called to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. The question is not, “How do I avoid hardship?” but rather, “How does God want me to grow as a result of hardship?”.

Paul says that God uses the struggles we go through in order to shape our character. It makes us people who are able to persevere in the midst of struggles. It will eventually shape our character into something that looks and lives more like Jesus everyday. Finally it will make us into a people of hope. That hope is the result of our relationship with Jesus. It is a relationship that will bring glory and honor to Him. It really gets us back to 1 Peter 3:15 that tells us we are to always be ready to explain the reason for the hope that is within us. If life is always wonderful, free of hardship, and filled with worldly abundance, you don’t need to explain the reason you feel so good. But if life is hard, and you still have joy and hope, then people want an explanation. They want to know why you are able to press ahead, be joyful, have hope. The answer should always point them to Jesus.

You see, when you have struggled in some way and Jesus helped you have victory, then the next time you face a struggle, you have developed some spiritual muscles that will give you the strength you need. Each time that happens, you get stronger. The strength is in many ways a stronger faith in Christ. You know that he saw you through before and you have the assurance, what the Bible calls hope, that He will see you through again. He won’t do all the work, just like as fourth graders we couldn’t do the work for the baby chicks. But Jesus will be with you in ways that give you the encouragement and strength that you need.

If he did everything for us in such a way as to remove any and all obstacles from our lives, removing all hardship, then we would never mature. We would never grow up and be spiritually strong. You see this in the way some parents work overtime to make sure that their children never experience any struggles in life. It is well meaning but in the long run it produces adults who are unable to handle hardship when it comes. And it will come. It is hard to watch them struggle, but it will be harder to watch them act like a twelve year old when they are thirty or even older. Colleges have a term for such parents. They call them Helicopter Parents because the are always hovering around their 20 year old to the point of making excuses for them to their professors. I would have been embarrassed beyond belief I my parents had done that. And I would never have matured to any degree.

We don’t like hardship or struggle and that is understandable. However we can not avoid it and God will not remove it from our lives. So we need to embrace the upside of it like Paul suggests and ask how the struggles of life can make us more like Jesus, more joyful, more hopeful, stronger, pressing ahead for the glory of God.

Is Anybody Asking?

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” 1 Peter 3:15

When is the last time, if ever, that someone who did not follow Christ asked you why you were always so hopeful? It seems to me that it rarely happens. A vast majority of people I know have never had someone approach them and ask about their faith after seeing in them a life of hope and joy. How sad is that. Peter seems to think that this should be a common occurrence. It should be something that happens with such frequency that we are always ready with an explanation. It is this verse that is at the heart of what it means to be a Provocative Christian. Our lives should be so running over with hope that people are drawn to us and want to have that hope. Our lives should provoke the question, “why are you so hopeful, or loving, or joyful, or kind, or whatever?”

In the off chance that we get asked, Peter says that we must be prepared. If this verse ever gets dealt with in sermons and Bible studies it is usually to focus on this part. Usually we focus on what kinds of answers to give people to convince them to follow Jesus. Sadly we usually focus on answers to questions that nobody is asking. Trust me, the average person who is not following Jesus really doesn’t care about things like, the rapture, how Jesus is present in communion, or if the King James is the only reliable translation. Don’t get me wrong. Truth in all it forms is important. But arguments about truth is not what attracts most people to Jesus. Lives well lived, following Him who is the Way, Truth, and Life, will attract people and provoke them to ask questions about our hope.

So why doesn’t it happen much? Part of the answer is in the first phrase, “in your hearts set Christ apart as Lord”. If we really loved the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength then our hope would be assured and it would shine through. So if no one is asking about the hope you have, maybe you need to take a closer look at whether or not Jesus is in fact set apart in your heart as Lord. Is your day filled with thoughts of how to serve Him and love him and serve and love others in His name? If so, your hope will be obvious. Do you find yourself thinking of Jesus and talking to Him throughout your day? If so, your hope will be contagious.

Another reason why people may not be asking you the question is found in the last phrase, “do this with gentleness and respect”. Far too many people have the picture of Christians, not as people of hope, but of angry people who are mad at the world. We have got to learn how to disagree with someone and be gentle and respectful. If you want a role model for that just look at Jesus when we dealt with people like the woman at the well, or the one caught in adultery, or Peter after the denial. I think that often the person who argues the loudest and goes on the attack is the person who is most insecure in what they believe. I think we have a lot of insecure Christians out there. The person who is prepared in their faith and has Christ set apart in their hearts is a person who can be gentle and show respect.

Finally, if you feel like you have set Christ apart in your heart and you are gentle and respectful, and you do shine forth hope and still no one is asking about it, there may be a very simple solution. Stop hanging out with so many Christians all the time. Let me put it another way. Start rubbing elbows with people who do not know Jesus. Most people who have been following Jesus for more than two years, have no significant relationships with non-Christians. Oh you may know some and have a passing acquaintance, but you don’t share life with them. People aren’t asking because they don’t see enough of your life to see the hope in times of trouble, or the love for others in time of suffering. You need to get closer to them and let them see your life. Invite them over for a barbecue. Get tickets for a sporting event and make them your guest. Offer to babysit their kids so they can have a date night. Find some way to serve them in Christs love and build a relationship. Oh, and make sure you are ready with an answer for the hope you have, because trust me, if you live that way, the questions will come.