Life is Difficult

Dr. Brian Allison

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, historian, and dissident thinker, was deported from Russian in 1974 because he had spoken out against the prison and forced labour camps in the Soviet Union. He had first hand experience of the appalling conditions and treatment given in these camps. From 1945 to 1953, he was imprisoned because he had criticized Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) openly in a letter. From 1953 to 1956, he was exiled to Siberia. During the period of imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn apparently had reached a point of both physical and emotional exhaustion. In his words, he was ready to die. He had given up all hope of surviving. Now at that time, he was engaged in hard labour, being sustained by a starvation diet, shoveling relentlessly for twelve hours a day under the blazing sun. He was on the verge of actually quitting, and as a result would suffer the fatal consequences of resistance and insubordination. Solzhenitsyn recounts that at that critical moment in his life a fellow worker, who was also a fellow Christian, came up beside him and with a cane drew the symbol of a cross in the dirt and quickly erased it, and then returned to his work. Solzhenitsyn affirms that when he saw that symbol of the cross, a renewed hope flooded his mind, inspiring him to persevere. He insists that that symbol of hope continued to propel and encourage him so that he was able to endure, not only in that critical moment of his life, but also during the subsequent days of his stay in the prison camps. So Solzhenitsyn persevered during his time of tribulation.

The Scriptures teach, "Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer" (Rm. 12:12). This verse presents three interrelated aspects. The first aspect refers to future blessing – "rejoicing in hope." The Christian has the hope of the resurrection, of glory, and of eternal life. This hope should inspire him or her, and draw them ever forward. Now before this hope is actually realized and experienced, the Christian must pass through various trials and difficulties. Accordingly, the second aspect of this verse refers to enduring hardship – "persevering in tribulation." Further, as we recognize the need and challenge to handle trials and difficulties in order to eventually secure this hope, the Christian should apply to spiritual means by which perseverance may be enhanced and facilitated. Hence, the third aspect of this verse refers to the actual means by which the hope may be reached – "devoted to prayer." In this article, we shall consider the second aspect of this verse – "persevering in tribulation."

Tribulation in the world

The Christian life is characterized by tribulation. This fact, I'm sure, is self-evident, but I do think it would be helpful to remind ourselves of it. Scott M. Peck begins his popular book, The Road Less Travelled, with the poignant words: "Life is difficult." Life is certainly difficult because life contains much tribulation. The Greek term from which this word 'tribulation' is translated can also be translated 'affliction' or 'distress.' Now the basic idea is simply that of suffering – suffering that may consist of either physical pain or emotional distress. For instance, I know a family who is presently experiencing the two aspects of this kind of suffering. The son has been physically maimed through a car accident. He is now a quadriplegic. The parents and the other siblings are feeling the emotional distress over this accident. This family is certainly undergoing tribulation.

Jesus said, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). Experiencing tribulation is inescapable. To live in this world is to have suffering in your life, especially if you are a Christian. When the apostle Paul and Barnabas were returning to the places in which they had made Christian disciples, they were "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'Through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God'" (Acts 14:22). Further, we read, "So that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions [i.e., tribulations]; for you yourselves know that we have been destined [or appointed] for this" (1 Th. 3:3).

Tribulation means unhappiness

So life is difficult. You will feel the pressure of trying to provide financially for your family. You will feel the stress of trying to raise a family in a permissive society. You will feel the distress of trying to work with belligerent co-workers. A life characterized by tribulation means a life filled with many moments of unhappiness. The other evening I was watching a T.V. documentary called 'In the Name of God.' The documentary focused on a charismatic branch of the contemporary church. One episode presented a charismatic preacher who was preaching that the goal of the Christian life is to be happy. He proclaimed that God wants Christians to be happy; to be laughing all the time. Wrong! God's goal for the Christian is not to be happy, but rather to be holy; and as a result of being holy, he or she may also enjoy a measure of happiness. If life is tribulation, then life will inevitably be unhappy (though many personal moments of happiness may be experienced); but even though we are unhappy, we can always be joyful. God never promised happiness to us, but He did provide joy for us. Joy is not happiness. Joy is being able to be content and satisfied in the midst of tribulation. Tribulation will make you unhappy (for you will feel the pain), but you are to count it all joy even when you do "encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (Jas. 1:2).

Accepting that life is tribulation

The pursuit of happiness should not be the Christian's first priority. Now, as a Christian, if your basic belief is that you should be happy, and thus your main goal is to be happy, you are setting yourself up for inevitable and continual misery and disappointment. For instance, when life becomes unhappy for some reason (e.g. unemployment, abandonment, abuse, etc,) you may begin to question the love or goodness of God, and subsequently may even wonder if you have sinned or offended God in some way, and thus you may begin to feel very guilty. Again, "in the world you have tribulation," and when you realize and accept this fact, the better able you will be in addressing realistically the issues and challenges of life. We must accept that 'life often stinks.' We must accept that life is often unfair. We must accept that life is often painful. As Christians, we need to realize that life indeed consists of hard knocks, and ask God to give us grace to accept and deal with them.

Let me ask you. Be honest with yourself. Is one of your main goals that of being happy, pain-free, distress-free? Do you make such statements as: "If only I could just make a bit more money...If only I could just buy a few more things...If only I could be able to take that six week vacation...If only I could just pay off the mortgage..." Is your primary goal that of being happy? If so, you have the wrong goal. You are setting yourself up for continual misery and disappointment. Your goal should be that of holiness. You should be pursuing the goal of being more Christ-like, focusing not so much on your feelings (wanting to feel good), as on your actions (actually doing good). Do you see life as characterized by suffering? Do you feel that God should not bring any suffering into your life, that as a Christian walking in faith everything should be 'a bed of roses' – no problems; no difficulties? The prosperity gospel teaches that God does not want you to hurt; that God does not want you to suffer; that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy. That's a lie! Sometimes God wants you to suffer; not because He hates you, but because He loves you – "for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (Hb. 12:6).

You may have many times of happiness in this life, but far too frequently you will have times of unhappiness, of tears, of grief, of pain. May I kindly say – "Get used to it." You will then more readily accept the hard blows that life does throw your way. When you understand that God has appointed Christians to tribulation, unhappiness will become easier to adjust to, and your Christian experience will be less confusing, especially as you try to reconcile your faith and your relationship to God with the stark realities of daily living.

We need to remember that this present life is temporary and is passing away. We are waiting for the coming eternal life, and then we will be continually and eternally happy. In heaven, there will be no sorrow, no grief, no tribulation. This present life is only a stepping stone, a mere preparation for that future life.

We also need to remember that the sufferings of this life are relatively small in comparison to the glory that will be revealed in us. We read, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us" (Rm. 8:18); and again, "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17f.).

Responding to tribulation

Now one may respond to tribulation in one of two ways. First, negatively, one may whine, scream, rant, rave, raise his or her fist to God, get angry, question what the Lord is doing, etc. He or she may complain like this: "I am reading my Bible, I am praying, and still the world is crashing down around me." Second, positively, one may grit his or her teeth, pull back the shoulders and stand firm; trusting and resting in God, and believing that He has not abdicated His throne, that He is still the Sovereign One who knows the end from the beginning. How do you respond to the tribulation in your life?

I had the opportunity last Sunday to visit the family (mentioned above) suffering tribulation. These Christian parents really encouraged me. Even though they are going through this personal and family tragedy, they are resting in God; accepting what God has brought into their life; trusting God and evidencing faith in Him. In their faith, they have refused to buckle under the weight of suffering, but are continually casting their cares upon God, knowing that He cares for them. Being tested at the point of faith, they are persevering through the fires 'with flying colours.' We need to learn to bow to the sovereign will of God. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, and "blessed be the name of the Lord" (Jb. 1:21). The Christian's response to tribulation should be sheer perseverance; not pouting and throwing up the hands like spoiled little brats, thinking that God ought to respond to his or her every demand or whining. As with Job, the Christian must courageously and submissively say, "Though He slay me [if God is pleased to do that], I will hope in Him" (Jb. 14:15).

When physical illness comes to your home (and it will), when family or personal loss visits your home (and it will), when unemployment visits your home, when your possessions or your home becomes damaged, you are not to bemoan and whine, but you are to rise to the challenge, trusting in God, knowing that you are destined for these tribulations. Now I know that is a bitter pill to swallow, but God is saying, "Get the pill over." I am not saying that we should not cry, or that we should not be sorrowful, or that we should not grieve; of course we should do all these things when occasion warrants them, but we do not do them as defeated people who have no hope. We weep, we cry, we wet our pillows, but not as those who have no hope because we know that there is One in glory who loves us, who cares for us, and that through the darkness, He stands in the light and waits for us. By His grace, we spiritually hear His voice and we press on, knowing that on the other side of the darkness, the gloom, the pain, the hurt, and the suffering is the Lord, the Comforter of His people. Do you believe that?

Tribulation has a spiritual design

Now God has a spiritual design for allowing this tribulation in the lives of His people. First, God wants to produce proven character in His people. We read, "And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint" (Rm. 5:3-5a). Having gone through the fires of testing, with the dross being burned, you will then display the very character of Christ. Ruth Scales writes, "There is no gold without the refiner's fire. There is no steel without the heat of a blast furnace. There is no statue without the hammer and the chisel. There is no diamond without the cutter's tool. There is no forceful life without the tribulation of the world."

In a Time magazine article, "What It Takes to Reach the Summit" (March 6, 1989), John Skow tells about Stacy Allison and Peggy Luce, who were the first women to ascend the summit of Mount Everest. Stacy Allison had failed to ascend the summit on different occasions, and such failure brought about a great deal of disappointment in her life. Now having finally ascended the summit successfully, the following question was asked her, "In reaching Mount Everest's summit was there any unexplored places in your character that you discovered?" Allison responded, "Getting to the summit didn't. Winning's easy. Not getting there the year before did." Self-discovery came to Allison in her failure to reach the summit. In her failure and disappointment, she learned determination and resolve, and her character developed. Perseverance brings about character.

In the Weekly Reader magazine (October 1987), there is an interesting article called "Leeches." Reportedly, a young boy by the name of Donnell McLucas cut off his finger by a grocery cart. A doctor sewed it back on, rejoining the vessels and the nerves. However, the finger turned purple, rather than a healthy pink. The blood was not flowing to the tip of the finger. There was no blood circulation. Accordingly, the doctor decided to put leeches on the tip of the finger in order to suck out the blood. He did that for a number of days, and as the leeches suck, eventually the blood circulation returned. This story has spiritual application. God is pleased to bring 'leeches' (i.e., problems, disasters, afflictions, etc.) into your life that literally suck the happiness out of you in order to keep the spiritual circulation going, in order to get the spiritual life revived. Thank God for the 'leeches;' those occurrences that suck the happiness out of our lives. He wants to produce spiritual character.

Second, God allows tribulation in our lives because He wants to prepare us for eternal blessings. The Scriptures read, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (Jas. 1:12). The end of God's testing is the glory of eternal life. There is no crown without a cross. We persevere through tribulation in hope. So we read, "And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it" (Rm. 8:23-25). We have the hope of the resurrection, the hope of glory, the hope of eternal life, and it is that hope that is ever drawing us forward, inspiring our faith and causing us to persevere through the trials which are the necessary gateways to that hope.

May God strengthen you and grant you grace to press on.