Last week, I heard a preacher say, “We’ll start with the basics. Everyone who comes to Christ has to come to the conclusion that there is a God, and it is not me.” That is an essential starting point for leading a redeemed life. But contrary to what some may say, it is not the starting point for an easy life. God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.
If Jesus is Lord, and if he invites me to follow him, then I can safely assume he will lead me to places of his choosing, places I would not otherwise elect to go. And Jesus was very clear. Luke 9 he tells his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over, where he would suffer, be condemned and crucified and on the third day he would rise from the dead. And then he says, “If you would come after me, you must take up your cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23-24) The cross we are invited to bear is not a mild affliction. That annoying kid in your class, the coworker who leaves a mess, or the family member who embarrasses you whenever they come to dinner is not your cross to bear. “Take up your cross…” came along as Jesus was talking about taking his own journey toward rejection, suffering, death, AND resurrection. He invites us to take up our cross as he was going to his own cross. We can be confident, then, that for his disciples, following Jesus would lead to dark places where they would each know what he meant by “lose your life to find it.” Why should we ever assume it would be different for us? In John’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Jesus suggests that taking up a cross is worth it.
Consider the words and life of Paul the Apostle who wrote in several places to the early church about the imitation of Christ. (i.e I Corninthians 11:1) He invited people to imitate him as he imitated Christ, and his imitation of Jesus led to the experience of rejection, suffering, and eventually death – but also great confidence in the resurrection.
We need to come to terms with this. I don’t want anyone to be uniformed or misinformed. Following Jesus doesn’t automatically mean you will suffer. But just know, you probably will. Nearly everyone does whether they follow Jesus or not. Just read the paper, watch the news, or visit your local nursing home and ask yourself – is anyone suffering?
I know that some people are told that following Jesus leads to a easy life of health and prosperity. That’s a lie. Following Jesus generally involves a level of suffering. Anyone who says otherwise, who suggests suffering is not a normal part of following Jesus, is selling false gospel. Don’t buy it.
What’s your story? Does it include difficult times? Have you spent seasons dealing with, for example…
…failure, frustrations, debt, rejection, loss, depression, oppression, persecution, divorce, job loss, scarcity, ill-health, disappointment, delayed hope, or dysfunctional families?
Ever wondered why? I know some of these experiences come along because of foolish choices motivated by selfishness or pride. But most people I know find themselves in difficult seasons while simply trying to do the best they could. Suffering of some sort simply comes along. And it begs the question, “Why would a good God allow people he loves to suffer? Why?”
No tight, easy answers here. I don’t know why God didn’t make things easier. But we get clues. Jesus suffered and it wasn’t random or purposeless. The early church suffered, too and it wasn’t meaningless. Followers of Jesus have faced difficulties throughout history, and yet those hard times were often the seed of God’s work. Our difficulties are not necessarily random (though they may be) and are not necessarily meaningless (though they may seem so) but they are never beyond redemption. Difficulties are not permanent. Through them, even in them, we can begin to experience the power of God’s redeeming work and the power of the Christ’s resurrection.
Let me unpack some of this from scripture. Have you ever noticed the connection between Acts 1:8 and Acts 8:1. Jesus tells the disciples they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth in Acts 1:8. From Acts 1:8 through Acts 8:1 they are Jesus witnesses in Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, and, well, Jerusalem. It was a great time. Signs. Wonders. Great fellowship. No unmet needs. Daily Worship. There were some difficulties. Some arrests, threats, and opposition from officials. But most of the problems were internal. Annanias and Sapharia lied about their donations in order to look more generous. There were some tensions about a problem with some widows feeling like there were being treated unfairly. But things had been getting harder all along. The apostles had been flogged because they kept teaching about Jesus. But they kept teaching about Jesus. Maybe it was their example, the way they had handled suffering, that gave a guy named Stephen, one of the first deacons, the courage he needed for his own difficult assignment from Jesus. He dared to speak about Jesus to people who didn’t want to hear it, and did it so effectively that they arrested him and killed him for it.
That’s when Acts 8:1 happened. A persecution broke out against the church and they were scattered from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.
Shattered and scattered. A guy named Saul (who would become an Apostle called Paul) led the persecution. People were arrested and dragged out of homes. Families were divided. Wealth was confiscated. People were thrown in prison. The Jerusalem church was shattered. Side note: we don’t hear much about grumbling widows or false generosity after that. People had more important things on their minds.
And they were scattered. The Greek word there is an agricultural word for scattering seeds. They were dispersed like seeds being sowed into the world – to Judea – where they wanted to go and where they preached the word. And they were scattered to Samaria where they didn’t’ want to go – because Jews typically didn’t like Samaritans – and yet, they preached the word there, too. The motivation to be Jesus’ witnesses, not just in Jerusalem but also in Judea and Samaria seemed to require the difficulties of a shattering experience. And finally in Acts 11:19, they began speaking the word of God “to the Greeks, also” as a result of “the persecution associated with Stephen.” Acts 1:8 begins to be fulfilled as a result of the difficulties that begin in Acts 8:1
God’s mission in the world seems to be connected to, even rooted in, difficulty. It makes you wonder if there could have been an easier way. In Acts 13, for example, Saul and Barnabas start a missionary journey without much difficulty. They simply respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That seems easier. But even in that story, difficulties arose. God would use those to further his mission, especially to form and shape the New Testament.
I have been in church leadership, in ministry, for over thirty years, and as a pastor for eighteen. (Wow, where did the time go?) I have noticed that those who seem to imitate and represent Jesus best have usually walked with him through hard times.
Have you had hard times? May the Lord redeem them and put them to good use. Are you in the middle of a difficult season? Hold on to God through it. And one more thing: Think about the nature of your particular difficulties. It’s very likely that God is using them to prepare you to bless others who’ve endured similar things. The people to whom God is calling you are probably the people who can relate your places of pain, frustration, and failure. And they need you! They need you to remind them that the God who was with you and never left you will be with them and never leave them, too.
You are uniquely equipped to bear witness, to give courage, to bring hope, and to pray with authority because of the difficult seasons you have endured. Don’t waste your pain! In God’s Kingdom, whatever you have suffered has given you greater authority to represent Jesus well. Put it to use for the glory of God.
You go no where by accident!