"It Was Not Supposed to Turn Out This Way" September 01 2018

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

The beginning of the school year reminds me of how simple life used to be as a child. Back then, Labor Day weekend usually brought with it a mix of emotions: sadness that summer vacation was coming to an end, along with a bit of trepidation about what a new school year would bring. While school seemed hard at times, and homework was always standing in the way of fun and games, little did I know back then that going to school would be the easy part of life. The hard part starts once you are no longer there.

Although some childhood situations were more challenging than others, we were generally learning to be responsible (though some of us very slowly) and did not yet have many life-changing decisions to make or responsibilities to carry out. And we didn’t have as many things to potentially worry about – no bills to pay, no budget to manage, no cars to fix, no job interviews, no difficult clients or job pressures, few deadlines to meet, no layoffs, no housing decisions, no children to train, less complicated relationship problems, and no difficult political conversations at Thanksgiving with Uncle Harry. You get the idea.

As children, we are blissfully unaware of how complicated life can be. Even as we enter adulthood, we tend to have high expectations of how our lives will turn out, or as some put it, a youthful idealism. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but when life takes difficult turns that we don’t expect, many people are ill-prepared to deal with them, even as Christians. And life can get way more complicated than we ever imagined.

Believers have a big advantage, as we have been provided with powerful resources – namely, the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and prayer. That doesn’t mean that life gets easy. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be tears. It doesn’t mean that we will be without grief. Even Jesus wept when His dear friend Lazarus died, and that was even knowing that Lazarus would be raised from the dead.

God, our loving Father, wants us to have an abundant life spiritually speaking. But He is also very clear in His Word, that it may not be an easy life physically speaking. And He loves us so much that He has told us what to expect and how to prepare for it. Jesus, Himself, spent much of His three years of ministry preparing the disciples for the difficult days to come, and we have that inspired instruction recorded for us to use in our lives today.

Even His early teachings of the disciples were focused on preparing them for life as a follower of  Christ. Just look at the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew Chapters 5-7. Jesus prepared the disciples to deal with the practical challenges and temptations that come with the realities of life: persecution (5:10), false accusations (5:11), temptations to anger (5:21), need for reconciliation (5:23-24), lust (5:27-28), divorce (5:31), dealing with evil people (5:38-41), loving our enemies (5:43-44), self-exaltation (6:1-4), forgiveness (6:12-15), temptation to accumulate earthly treasure (6:19-20), worry (6:25-34), hypocrisy (7:5), discernment (7:15-20); and obedience (7:24-27). These are contemporary issues that we face still today. How could anyone ever say that the Bible is not relevant?

Jesus also gave specific instruction to the disciples as His crucifixion approached: a vivid example of what it means to serve (John 13:5-9), the realities of betrayal (13:10-11); loving one another “as I have loved you” (13:34), life after death (14:1-4), fellowship with the Father (14:11), the Helper, the Holy Spirit (14:16), more persecution (15:18-21), including persecution motivated out of perceived service to God (16:2 – “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.”)

It is hard to get perspective on this when we are going through an extremely difficult situation. There can be disillusionment, disappointment, and despair. We can be physically and mentally completely exhausted, not knowing what to do next. The situation may seem out of control, and that we have come to the end of ourselves. We might even be tempted to think, “Lord, I’m ready to opt out of life,” or “Lord, now would be a great time for the Rapture.” 

In the midst of all this, Jesus left us with a great example in His prayer for the disciples in John 17:13-19:

“But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.”

What is remarkable about this prayer is that Jesus prayed that the disciples would have His joy. He said this despite all He had gone through and all that He knew He was going to go through. This implies a much deeper joy than the feeling-based joy (or “enjoyment”) that we sometimes live for.

We see this again in the commentary in Hebrews 12:1-2 regarding Jesus’ understanding of His purpose for enduring the cross:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

What we need to distinguish as believers is “joy” vs. “en-joy.” Jesus did not enjoy going to the cross to take on the punishment for our sin. We know this because He said in Luke 22:42, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Likewise, we can have joy in what God is doing in and through us during a trial, while not enjoying the trial itself. God does not expect us to enjoy each trial, but to look past the trial to His ultimate purpose.

We see this in the Hebrews 12:1-2 passage, with the “therefore” in verse 1 being the continuation of Hebrews 11, often known as the “Hall of Faith,” where God recorded many of the great human examples of faith from the Old Testament. You can read back through this on your own, but Hebrews 11:35-39 provides a summary of how things did not go well, in human terms, for almost all these heroes of the faith.

“Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. All these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.”

In other words, we not only have Jesus, but we have this “great cloud of witnesses” who experienced very difficult things long before us. And the lessons that Jesus gave to the disciples and the recorded lives of the heroes of faith are directly applicable to us today, 2000 years later. That is amazing hope!

As the end of Hebrews 11 indicates, we cannot predict and may not even live to know how all the difficult things in our lives will turn out. That’s not our job. Our job is to be faithful, and in the midst of even the most difficult circumstances, and by God’s grace, we can have not only God’s peace, but His ultimate approval. This is not to minimize how tough these situations can be. The types of difficult situations are innumerable: a car accident, a serious health problem, a financial setback, a suicide, a drug overdose, a son or daughter walking away from the Lord, a surprise betrayal. There are many ways that the high expectations we might have had can turn out to be disappointments. Yet in the midst of each agonizing situation, there is an opportunity to demonstrate the faith that God provides, and like those in the Hall of Faith, inspire others to walk in faith as well, pointing them to Jesus, the ultimate example of all. We will have more specifics on how to deal with these types of challenges in a future blog.

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Steve Smith