I read a lot of stories. One of the things I like about stories is how the characters come to life in my own mind because of the things they experience, and the thoughts they have. When I reflect on the stories, I compare the experiences and thoughts with my own experiences and thoughts.
The stories I like best are those where the heroes encounter a lot of troubles and challenges, but overcome them to accomplish their mission at the end. The difficulties, plot twists, and even the failures and missteps are all part of the story, and they keep things from getting boring.
I have been reading through and studying some passages in God’s story – the Bible. I have been trying to understand why God allows suffering, trials, temptations, difficulties, challenges – tough times – to pepper our lives and our stories.
When I looked at Jesus’ parable of the planter and soils in Matthew 13, I asked whether going through tough times implies that I am not a Christian. I discovered that my identity depends on who planted me, not on how difficult the soil is. In fact, Jesus tells us in that parable that God intentionally puts some of his seed in rough soil. So, I should not be surprised to undergo challenges. The existence of those challenges serves to prove my identity as a Christian, not to disprove it.
When I looked at 1 Peter 1, I asked why God puts me through tough times – what is his ultimate plan for me, and why do I have to go through tough times to experience his ultimate plan. Peter changes the metaphor, and says that God is a refiner. He puts his gold through the fire so that it comes out refined – purer. Peter taught that Christians have a future we will inherit which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
When I looked at James 1, I asked how should I respond when tough times come. He says that I should respond with joy, because God is maturing me with the process. I should ask God for wisdom in how to respond, and trust him to give me that wisdom.
Today, I want to look at one of the passages where the apostle Paul talks about tough times.
Romans 5:1-5 JDV
1 Consequently, now that we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained admission by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we delight in the expectation of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also delight in the things that we suffer, knowing that the suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, more expectation. 5 And what we expect does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Paul was one of those heroes that we read about. And, like the heroes in the stories, he encountered a lot of suffering, trials, temptations, difficulties, challenges – tough times – throughout his life. He had tremendous success as an evangelist and church planter, but he also paid the price for that success. This is how he described his life:
“with much greater labours, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:25-28 NET).
His life was chock full of tough times and ended in imprisonment and death by the sword. He described that life as a gruelling race that he fought to the finish, and his death as being poured out as an offering to God (2 Timothy 4:6-7).
So, I would say that Paul knew something about the topic of tough times that believers face. Here is what he says about tough times in Romans 5:
First, he says that TOUGH TIMES CANNOT STEAL WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN TO US.
Paul was not a Pollyanna. He did not paint the Christian life as a fairyland where Christians are guaranteed lives of health, prosperity and constant success. Like Jesus, and James and Peter, Paul made it quite clear that Christians would face lives filled with challenges, and difficult choices. But Paul did say that in the midst of those hard races, there would always be some gifts that every Christian has that the tough times cannot take away.
- Righteousness (1) – not the righteousness we give to God, but the righteousness he gave to us, not by our works, but by virtue of the shed blood of Christ. Our right standing with God is something that no struggle can take away from us.
- Peace (1) – not the peace that comes from never experiencing trouble, but the peace with God that helps us to stay true to him in the midst of the struggle. A right relationship with God that trusts him to take care of all the sins in our past, and all the temptations we face now, and knows that he will, so we will have a spotless future.
- Grace (2) — the armour in which we stand that makes it possible for us to “delight in the things we suffer.” God’s grace toward us helps us to understand that the tough times are not judgments from an angry God. His judgment upon our sins is atoned for by the blood of his Son.
- The Holy Spirit (5) — God’s Spirit alongside us and inside us who answers our prayers for wisdom, and helps us to see the finish line, no matter how tough the race gets. He also helps us to respond to suffering with the love of God, a love that is willing to pour our lives out for those who despise and reject us.
Secondly, Paul says that TOUGH TIMES ARE ALLOWED IN ORDER TO CHANGE US.
There was a philosophical battle going on in the time of Paul. The philosophers argued over what made a person manly. They would look at paintings and carvings that depicted strong men in battle (like Hercules, fighting the Hydra). Some would say that the paintings described the struggle to conquer your surroundings, and that success made you manly. Others would say that the struggles were part of the inner struggle to control and tame yourself morally.
Paul appears to have borrowed language used by some of these philosophers to describe how Christians should understand the tough times that they face. He scribes a cycle of experiences which begins with an expectation of God’s glory (2). This may mean that we expect God to be glorified in what happens to us now, or it may mean that we expect to be ultimately glorified by God in the future.
The challenge comes when we suffer tough times. This suffering directly contradicts our expectation. We have a choice. Either we despair and renounce our expectation, or we trust God and endure the suffering, refusing to unload our expectation. Living out that choice to patiently endure tough times produces godly character. The result is that we end up back where we started, with more expectation. The expectation is preserved and enhanced by the experience.
So, how do tough times change us. They can change people by making them cynical and pessimistic, or they can strengthen their resolve and make them even more optimistic. For Paul, tough times are a means of making our faith stronger.
Thirdly, Paul says TOUGH TIMES DEMONSTRATE OUR DESTINY.
Christians can be identified because we are the ones who “delight in the expectation of God’s glory” (2). That means that what we want in life is for our heavenly Father’s reputation to be enhanced, and for his will to happen.
So, when something happens to us or to our loved ones which we cannot see as fitting into that frame – we choose to trust that God knows what is happening, and has allowed it for his greater glory. “What we expect does not disappoint us” (5), because we expect God to make sense of it all later. Until then, we trust our heavenly Father, and that brings him glory.
In Philippians, Paul described our faith reaction this way:
“Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 NET).
Our expectation is challenged by tough times. Instead of becoming anxious and worrying about it, we choose to pray and God gives us peace in the midst of the struggle. Our minds and hearts get peace, and God gets the glory for the strength we display.
Tough times prove our destiny. They give us an opportunity to display something within us which is stronger that the challenges we face. Without the competition, the athlete would have no way of showing her strength. Without the conflict, the soldier would have no way of showing that he has been well trained. Without tough times, Christians would have no way of proving that God has given us something stronger than those tough times.
Tough times are not eternal. We are not going to be struggling with sin and sorrow and tragedy forever. But we will be able to look back on these tough times in the future and see that “our momentary, light suffering (was) producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).