Originally published 12 Nov 2009
I have been reflecting on hardship quite a bit recently.
My own particular hardship has been unemployment, having had only three days of paid work in the last seven months or more. When I think about it, unemployment has followed me ever since I left university in the midst of the last recession in 1991. Back then it took me 14 months after graduating with an honours degree in Maths and Accounting to eventually start my training in an accountancy practice. Since then I have been made redundant three times. The last time was at the end of 2007, and my jobs since then have been temporary assignments. The last one finished seven and a half months ago.
Let me tell you, in case you were in any doubt – unemployment sucks! You can easily get bored and lazy. There is only so much time you can spend rewriting your CV and responding to job adverts without going crazy. There are also only so many DIY jobs you can do without feeling you are turning into an unpaid handyman. After a while your confidence starts to wane and there is a grave risk of giving up your career, no matter how successful you may have thought you were before. Money worries creep in, and can take over, especially if you didn’t get (much of) a settlement. And when the money worries creep in you start falling out with your spouse over how you spend your time and what is right to spend money on. It is not pleasant at all.
And yet I’ve been struck by what the Bible has to say about suffering and hardship for believers. I’ll outline just a few of my many thoughts on this in a moment, but first I want to deal with something that I have seen crop up a few times recently among fellow-believers who have been going through hardship and suffering.
Is suffering and hardship God’s way of punishing us (even as believers) for not living the way he wants us to? I have heard at least one dear friend say this after suffering a series of crushing emotional blows. And I have to admit that over the past ten years or so I have had a tendency to think the same way about my own hardships.
And yet this is such an incredibly wrong way of thinking, and this dawned on me only this year after reading Stand by John Piper and You Can Change by Tim Chester. It’s not that I didn’t know the Bible teaching – I have been a Christian more than 25 years, read the Bible cover to cover several times, listened to hundreds of sermons, read many great Christian books. And yet I had not let the truth sink into my thinking.
The truth is this:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.….”
“… What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8)
God does punish our sin. He did it when the Son of God was hanging on the cross with nails through His hands and feet and God’s wrath was poured out on Him for the sins of His people. The awful truth is that God does punish sin, and those who refuse to put their faith in Jesus Christ still face that punishment now and at the Judgment Day. But for those who repent and believe in Jesus, our punishment has fallen on Jesus already and we stand forgiven.
Our sins have been dealt with by Jesus, so there is no punishment left for us to face. That is the point of what Jesus did on the cross. So we ought not to think, as believers, that our hardships are God’s way of punishing our sins. If I think that, what exactly was it that I believe Christ did on the cross?
So God is for us, nothing can separate us from his love in Chris Jesus our Lord. He is no longer standing over us in judgment with punishment and the threat of eternal punishment. Punishment for us has finished, it has been removed for ever through Jesus’ amazing work.
So if our hardships are not God’s punishment, what are they? What do they mean? That is where Hebrews 12 helps us.
Hebrews 12:7ff says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 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.”
I’d say we have to think about this discipline on two levels, because notice that the writer to the Hebrews does not say “endure hardship as punishment”! Discipline is something different.
Actually that’s not strictly true. In the preceding verses the writer to the Hebrews says, “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.'”
Actually the Greek word for “punishes” used here can also mean “whips”. So God whips those he accepts as a son!
However, there is a valid point, since the word “punish” is used once, but the word “discipline” is used nine times or more in the passage. So this punishment is part of the way God disciplines us as sons. It’s not a judicial punishment, such as we would get from God as our Judge. And it’s not the full picture of the discipline we undergo.
First, as a parent I know that when I punish my children when they do something wrong – when I give them time-out or take away their pocket money or make them do chores or give them a smack or whatever – I am not giving them a full judicial punishment. I am expressing the fact that wrong deeds and words have bad consequences, and they should avoid them not only to please me but to please their Heavenly Father. I am creating consequences to lovingly teach them how to follow the Lord, so that they avoid worse consequences. All this has to be in a context of forgiveness for true repentance, and a gracious commitment to their good. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “a father disciplines the son whom he loves.”
Secondly, the word “discipline” (I hope this is borne out by the Greek original, because I am no Greek scholar and I don’t want to be misled by the English translation) has other connotations. The beginning of Hebrews 12 is talking about a race, throwing off every hindrance so that we can run freely. And the end of verse 11 speaks of being “trained” by the discipline he’s been talking about.
Every athlete knows about discipline in training. So the other way to understand our hardships is as training, not necessarily in response to anything wrong we have done.
One of my sons wants to play for Arsenal one day, and I’ve told him that if that’s what he wants then he will have to be disciplined. He has to get the right amount of sleep, eat the right food, do exercises to improve his fitness, speed, strength and stamina, and such like. Fine, he thinks, until I tell him he has to do press ups at seven o’clock in the morning, or until I tell him he can’t stay up late the night before a match, or tell him to cut down on eating junk food. These things are hard, they don’t feel pleasant at the time, but the disciplines will help him in the long run to be a better footballer and maybe achieve his dream. (I’m exaggerating, by the way, for effect – I don’t really tell him to do press ups at 7am every day!)
So it’s like this with our hardships. God gives them to us both to teach us what things are right and wrong, to correct our behaviour, and to train and instruct us and make us fit to run the race better. And the goal of the race is God Himself, His glory and holiness (v10). He strips away, through hardships, everything that hinders us from running the race with perseverance.
So for the writer to the Hebrews our hardships actually prove God’s love for us, rather than allowing us to question God’s love for us. Persevering in the faith can seem hard and sometimes we do, for many reasons, “grow weary and lose heart” (v3). But through this hardship God is actually helping us and strengthening us to run the race and get to the finish line.
And that, in a nutshell, is why if you do a word study in the Bible, or specifically the New Testament, and look for words like “hardship” or “suffering” or “trials” you will find words like “joy” or “glory” very close in the context. The Bible writers, speaking God’s Words, see suffering and hardship as something to find joy in, because these things show God’s love for us. They help us to strip away the sinful and extraneous things (even if not in themselves sinful) that slow us down in the race that really matters.
There is so much more to say here, but I will leave you to do that word search/study yourself, and profit from it.
I want to share with you the words of John Newton’s (1725-1807) little known hymn/poem. When I saw it I thought that it exactly reflected I feel at times. I prayed for humility and a closer walk with God, and all I seemed to get was trials, temptations and hardships. It always brings a tear to my eye, as I realize how far I am from truly understanding and appreciating what is important to God, and as I wonder how much more discipline I’ll need before I really get the final line.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
John Newton, 1725-1807
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
I know I must run the race with perseverance, so I pray, “Lord, please help me to run with race with perseverance.” And so then he says, “OK, Andrew, I love you very much, so here are some hardships to help you to get better at running that race.” Be careful what you pray for!
But finally I just want everyone to know that knowing these truths does not completely take away the emotional turmoil. I still have times where my confidence is gone, and I have no belief that I am ever going to earn any money ever again. I start to believe that I am unemployable. I lose sleep. But then I remember Paul saying, in Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And you know what? The more I have to remind myself of verses like these, the more I have to go in search of them to find comfort, the more I have to plead with God in prayer… the closer I get to God because I am communicating with Him more. “These inwards trials I employ, from self, and pride, to set thee free; And break thy schemes of earthly joy, that thou may’st find thy all in Me.”