"We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom
of God." Acts 14:22
Jesus came, not just to give eternal life to those who believe
in him, but to give us a life here on earth that is fuller, more
abundant (John 10:10). I believe our life on earth as Christians
should be, and is, a life that is full of hope, joy, peace, love,
richness and fulfillment. In this confusing world, there is great
assurance in knowing that our life is founded on the eternal truths
of God. There is also great assurance in knowing that, with God's
aid, we can be overcomers, more than conquerors (1 John 5:4-5; Romans
8:37). (Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are to
the New International Version, and any emphasis has been added.)
But this does not mean that the Christian life is easy. It means
that it is possible and it is worth the effort.
Jesus told us, "In the world you will have trouble"
("tribulations" KJV). Then he added, "But take heart!
I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) He told us to expect
persecution. (Matthew 5:11-12, 44; 10:23, 13:21; Mark 10:30; John
15:20). He told us that the world would hate us (John 15:18-19).
He also told us to count the cost of following him (Luke 14:25-33).
He said anyone who would be his disciple must "carry his cross
and follow me" (v. 27). "Any of you who does not give
up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (v. 33).
In the first century A.D. being a Christian was not easy. Christians
were often persecuted. Many were put in the arena to be eaten by
wild beasts; some were killed in various other ways, often quite
painfully. Of the 12 original disciples, ten, it is generally believed,
died as martyrs. Only John, who endured much, died a natural death.
Paul's life was not easy. He was flogged five times, beaten with
rods three times, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times,
attacked by robbers (2 Corinthians 11:23-29); he is believed to
have been executed as a martyr. He wrote, "We are hard pressed
on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted,
but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians
4:8-9). Peter wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at
the painful trial that you are suffering, as though something strange
were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12).
Today, Christians suffer severe persecution in Communist countries,
in many Muslim countries, and elsewhere. Many Chinese pastors have
spent 20 or 25 years in jail, and are constantly threatened with
reimprisonment. In Indonesia, Nigeria, India and other countries,
large numbers of Christians have been assaulted and killed by Muslims
or Hindus. In Sudan, many Christians (especially young girls) have
been enslaved, many have been killed, and there are reports that
some have been crucified. It is said that more Christians have died
for their faith in the 20th century, than in all the rest of the
history of Christianity. We in the West cannot assume that we will
be immune from such persecution.
What is the situation in those parts of the world where the Christian
church is not enduring persecution?
There are some who seem to think that, once someone accepts Jesus
Christ as their Lord and Savior, their problems are over and life
becomes much easier. Sometimes, and to a limited degree, this may
be true. There have been cases where someone, immediately upon receiving
Jesus Christ, was instantly freed of an addiction to drugs, alcohol,
or tobacco, or freed from some other stubborn problem. All things
are possible for God. But this is not common, and even in the cases
where it occurs it does not necessarily mean that all of a person's
problems are dealt with.
Usually, however, those who come to Jesus Christ find that they
continue to have the same problems to deal with. But they now have
some powerful resources to help them deal with them, so that what
before may have seemed impossible now becomes possible.
In some ways, indeed, life often seems to become more difficult
after we come to accept Jesus Christ. Later in this paper I shall
consider why that is so.
Jesus never promised us that life as a Christian would be easy.
He promised that it would be possible and that it would be rewarding.
It is remarkable how often Scripture uses words of effort and
striving to describe the Christian life. We are told to "run
with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1).
It is by "persevering" that we bear fruit (Luke 8:15).
We are told to "make every effort" (see, for example,
Hebrews 12:14; Luke 13:24). "Forceful men lay hold of"
the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:12). Men "should always pray
and not give up" (Luke 18:1). It is the one who "overcomes"
who wins a reward (Revelation 2:7). Paul said, "straining towards
what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which
God has called me" (Philippians 3:13-14). He wrote to Timothy,
"Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and
gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith" (1 Timothy 6:11-12).
This does not sound like an easy life. But it can be joyous one.
Let us look at some of the reasons why the Christian life can
1. We live in a flawed world.
When God created the heavens and the earth he saw that they were
good. But then man (in the persons of Adam and Eve) exercised wrongly
the free will that God had given him. Man chose to disobey God and
to do things his way rather than God's way. The result was that
sin, pain, suffering and death came into the world. There will be
a time in which there will be "no more death or mourning or
crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4). But that time has not yet
Meanwhile, God usually does not take the trouble away; he helps
us deal with it. "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present
help in trouble. Therefore we will
not fear..." (Psalm 46:1-2). Rather than take away the trouble,
he enables us to keep going when we are in
the trouble. When we are in the valley
of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23:4). "Though
I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life" (Psalm
138:7). God has said, "When you pass through the waters, I
will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will
not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not
be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze" (Isaiah 43:2).
God did not save the three young Hebrew men from being thrown into
the fiery furnace; but he was there with them and protected them
from harm (Daniel 3:16-30).
The Psalms are full of passages in which the Psalmist is discouraged,
weighed down, in trouble, in pain, almost in despair. "Why
are you cast down, Oh my soul" (Psalm 42:5 KJV). "Out
of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" (Psalm 130:1). In every
case, he finds strength in God.
I believe God allows us to go through difficulties partly so that
we will rely on him and not on our own strength. "Trust in
the Lord with all your heart" (Proverbs 3:5). "Be strong
in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10). God
told Joshua, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified;
do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever
you go" (Joshua 1:9). Paul wrote, of his trials in the province
of Asia (now part of Turkey), "We were under great pressure,
far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.
Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened
that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the
dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril and he will deliver
us. On him we have set our hope" (2 Corinthians 1:8-10).
I believe God also allows it because our character is strengthened
2. God uses adversity to build our character.
Receiving Jesus Christ is the start of a process. God wants to
change our character. One of the most important passages in Scripture
is Romans 12:2: "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
The goal of this transformation is nothing less than to become like
God in character (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). We are to "put on
the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness"
(Ephesians 4:24), the "new self, which is being renewed in
knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3:10). We
can "participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).
We cannot expect to achieve such a tremendous goal without effort
The process by which God produces a changed character is not easy.
It has been described in various ways. It may be compared to a sculptor,
who chips away at wood or stone with hard instruments until he achieves
the result he seeks. It may be compared to a jeweler who cuts and
polishes until he has a beautiful gem, or to a very hot refiner's
fire which brings the impurities in molten metal to the surface
so that they can be removed. Jesus compared it to a vinedresser,
who prunes sharply so that the vines will bear more fruit (John
15:2). Some have compared it to the intense heat and pressure by
which coal is turned into a diamond. Whatever the image, the process
can be painful.
The Greek word translated "transformed" is metamorphoo.
It speaks of a total transformation like that of a caterpillar into
a butterfly. As I understand it, in the chrysalis the caterpillar,
including even its internal organs, is dissolved and a new creature
emerges. It is almost like a death and rebirth. Scripture uses this
kind of imagery. It tells us to "put off your old self"
and "put on the new self" (Ephesians 4:22-23; Colossians
3:9), to "put to death what belongs to your earthly nature"
(Colossians 3:5). Paul wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ,
and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
We cannot expect that dying to the old self will be easy.
Sometimes we can see this process as God acting directly to discipline
and train us. "Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline"
(Revelation 3:19; see Proverbs 3:11-12). "God disciplines us
for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems
pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a
harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained
by it" (Hebrews 12:10-11).
At other times we can see it as God allowing adversity and using
it to build our character. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers,
whenever you encounter trials of many kinds, because you know that
the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must
finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking
anything" (James 1:2-4). Paul wrote, "We also rejoice
in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;
perseverance, character; and character, hope. And 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 5:3-5; see
also 1 Peter 1:6-7).
We can often see the process by which God works. If we need to
learn patience, God may allow situations that test our patience.
If we lack faith, God may allow situations that we cannot handle
in our own strength so that we have to depend on him. If we need
to learn love, God may bring into our lives people who are difficult
to love. If we want to be victorious, we will have to fight battles.
Many more examples could be given. God uses testing and difficulty
to develop strength and maturity in his people. The process is seldom
easy or pleasant, but the result is worth it.
3. The inner battle.
When we receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit
takes up residence inside us. Then a struggle begins. There is an
inevitable conflict between the Holy Spirit, who inhabits our spirit,
and what Scripture calls our flesh. Our flesh is much more than
our sexual desires .It includes such things as bitterness, unforgiveness,
apathy, self-centeredness, pride, and much else. It is everything
that needs to be, and does not want to be, changed. The flesh does
not give up easily. Scripture calls this conflict warfare. It is
an inner battle which is not over until the spirit has won. We must
fight this battle. If we try to cover it over or ignore it, we will
be among those who say "peace, peace" when there is no
peace (Jeremiah 8:11).
Peter tells us to "abstain from sinful desires, which war
against your soul" (1 Peter 2:11). Paul writes, "Live
by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful
nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit,
and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in
conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you
want" (Galatians 5:16-18; see Romans 8:5-14). "For in
my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at
work in the members of my body, waging war
against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of
sin at work within my members" (Romans 7:22-23). I believe
Paul spoke of this internal warfare again when he told us that "we
do not wage war as the world does.
The weapons we fight with... have divine power to demolish strongholds.
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against
the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make
it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). I believe Paul
is here talking primarily about inner mental strongholds (mindsets
and fixed conceptions), about pretensions that set themselves up
in our minds against the knowledge of God, and about our thoughts.
He is talking about what goes on in our minds, which is where the
inner struggle is concentrated.
This inner struggle starts when we accept Jesus Christ. Until
then there was little struggle. Our flesh was in control. But once
the Holy Spirit enters our spirit a struggle begins. The struggle
can be long-continued, arduous and painful. Only when it is resolved
can we find the true peace of God. In this sense, our life after
coming to Jesus Christ can seem more difficult than it was before.
4. Spiritual warfare.
Our struggle is not just with our own flesh. There is an enemy
who seeks to destroy our faith, render us ineffective or shut us
down. He constantly probes to find our weak points and uses them
for his purposes. Peter writes, "Be self-controlled and alert.
Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for
someone to devour. Resist him standing firm in the faith, because
you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing
the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter 5:8-9). Paul writes,
"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the
rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark
world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly
realms. Therefore put on the whole armor of God, so that when the
day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after
you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then" (Ephesians
6:12-14). Note that Paul does not say "if" the day of
evil comes, but "when". It will come!
Before we accepted Jesus Christ, the devil and his evil spirits
had us pretty much where they wanted us and left us pretty much
alone. When we accepted Jesus, a spiritual battle began. As we grow
in maturity and responsibility the battle becomes more intense.
The enemy of our soul does not give up easily, and the greater a
threat we become to him the more intensely he will fight. Fortunately,
we do not have to struggle just in our own power. We are "strong
in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10), and
it is in his power that we resist the devil. James writes, "Submit
yourselves, then, to God; resist the devil, and he will flee from
you" (James 4:7). Only as we are submitted to God and moving
in his power can we prevail. But in God's power we are "more
than conquerors" (Romans 8:37). If we obey God, "the God
of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" (Romans 16:20).
The Christian life is not always easy. Sometimes it is very difficult.
Few things that are worthwhile are easy. Paul, who was a rising
up-and-comer in the Jewish faith, gave it all up for Jesus, and
never expressed a moment's regret. He wrote, "whatever was
to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is
more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all
things. I consider them rubbish (KJV "dung") that I may
gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8).
At one point many of Jesus' disciples left him because of a "hard
teaching" that he gave. Jesus asked Peter if he and the rest
of the twelve would leave him also. Peter replied, "Lord, to
whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John
6:68). When things become a bit difficult I think of this passage.
"Lord, where else can I go?" Whatever the difficulties
of the Christian life, I cannot imagine leaving it for a life without
[Note. This paper draws on several other papers I have written.
Those interested in pursuing some of these matters in more detail
may wish to look at my papers on "Pain
and Suffering" and "Be
Transformed by the Renewing of Your Mind". ]