Facing the awful stuff in life!

CurveballsWe are starting a new series at Manly Life on the major curveballs that get thrown at us in life. If you are going through or have gone through a relationship bust up, or addictions, or depression or bereavement, or serious illness I hope you will find strength, wisdom and comfort in this series. I also hope it might help you navigate life well and that you will be equipped with tools for dealing with these major curveballs.

Or if you have never really faced a big curveball in life… then this series is also important for you! My hope is that you might grow in empathy, that is the ability to understand and share in another’s situation or feelings. Empathy is important as it helps you to enter into anothers pain and show compassion! I also hope you will be equipped as the reality is that you may well face these curveballs in the future.

CS Lewis said; “Hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny…” I wonder in your life what is the hardest thing you have ever gone through? I remember flying back into Sydney after 6 years overseas with my Pastor from London. He asked me what the hardest thing I had gone through in life was. At the time it was difficult to answer because to be honest I hadn’t faced any of life’s major curveballs. He said that was fair enough as you don’t go looking for hard times, but on reflection I wonder if he was asking at the time about my readiness to be a Pastor at 26 years if I hadn’t faced many problems… And certainly in Pastoral ministry I have now come up against many of life’s most awful things… sickness, death, relationship break downs…

It’s a strange idea but the bible seems to suggest that it is only really through life’s curveballs being thrown at us that we can develop and grow. In other words, while we may not wish hard things upon our or anyone’s life, there seems to be no other real path to growth. Would you agree?

So what is the hardest thing you have gone through and how did that shape you? We were discussing this at my men’s life group. I think it is fair to say that as group most of us have faced some pretty decent curveballs. There has been relationship break downs, mental health issues, financial stresses, and yet the resounding feeling was that you only grow through hardship.

Well quickly, what are the big stressors in life? According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory the top 10 stresses in life are;

  1. Spouse’s death- bereavement
  2. Divorce
  3. Marriage separation
  4. Jail term
  5. Death of a close relative
  6. Injury or illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Fired from job
  9. Marriage reconciliation
  10. Retirement

What else would you put in there? Mental health issues? Financial pressures, and mortgage stress? Loneliness? We will look at some of these in the coming weeks…

Well firstly, why suffering? If God is good and loving, why would he allow awful curveballs in life? It seems random right… good things can happen to bad people and bad things to seemingly good peopleA traditional Christian understanding has framed it this way; the cause of suffering is sin, the world and spiritual evil…

So firstly, evil: In John 10 – Jesus described the devil as a ‘thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy…’ Do you believe we live in a spiritual world? The devil is described in the scriptures as a lion who is on the prowl looking to devour! CS Lewis said there are two equal and opposite things to be aware of. One is thinking that the cause of everything is a spiritual attack (there is a demon behind every bush). The other is that we live in a neutral or non spiritual world where spiritual warfare is not real. I think the recent killing spree in South Carolina in a historic black church is an example of this kind of spiritual evil.

Secondly the world: Bad stuff like earthquakes happen and circumstantial things get thrown at us. This can sometimes be described as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because this world is fallen and broken, bad things happen. This can be on a large scale like the tsunami that struck over a decade ago killing hundreds of thousands. Or on a small scale, you might travel somewhere and pick up an illness that then diminishes your life… Bad things happen!

Thirdly, Sin: the third cause of suffering is our own actions. I think sin can be like shooting ourselves in the foot or a bit like eating a Crispy Cream donut. The first bite is delicious, but it then kind of makes you feel sick… and so you then have some more, thinking I need the sweet taste again… and eventually the result is a stomach ache! Our sin causes us suffering like that. It might start out making you feel good, but even when you realise it is hurting you, you then struggle to stop. It has a hold on your life and it causes all kinds of pain!

So when something goes wrong… say a relationship is seemingly irreparably damaged… it may be one of these things, it may be all three… It may be you come under spiritual attack… It may be that circumstances like loss of job or illness puts incredible strain on things. It may be that one or both of you are just selfish or prone to stray!

But can I say, in any curveball it is not as God intended it… we know that because God is in the business of restoring life, responding to our cries and bringing peace! But, and I do find this difficult to understand too… it is allowed to happen. The result though, and this can be hard at the times to understand, can amazingly still be good things. The revivalist Smith Wigglesworth said: “Great faith is the product of great fights. Great testimonies are the outcome of great tests. Great triumphs can only come out of great trial.” 

The Apostle Paul in Romans 5 says about suffering (in other words going through awful things) that it leads to perseverance, the development of character and ultimately hope! Paul was a guy who in his letter to the Corinthians says he has been hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, so he knows this, he knows imprisonment and slander. And yet he wrote these inspired scriptures about the Christian life.

It starts with what would seem a strange statement… particularly if you didn’t know the rest of the verse. It says we glory in our sufferings. James in his letter will says something similar. He says consider it joy when you face many trials. Somehow they are suggesting, trials and suffering is used by God to produce something better within us! It will bring us closer to Jesus and help us to become more like Jesus.

So from these sufferings comes perseverance. Well of course it doesn’t have to… it can lead to giving up and despair. But as a Christian we are given strength to keep going. This is about courage and patience in the face of curveballs. So in that developing of perseverance, character is then formed in us.  Can I just say that character is so important! The word used here means ‘character that has been proved.’

I came across this during the week on a Facebook page called Humans of New York…

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 5.10.35 pm

The text says, “I’ve been having nerve issues, and this past year it’s gotten so bad that it hurts too much for me to walk. It was completely unexpected. I’ve always been such an optimistic person, but now I’m fighting with depression. He’s doing everything he can to take my mind off of it. We’re not sure if I’m going to get better, but he’s planning a backpacking tour through Europe for when I do. And I told him that I didn’t think I could handle a visit to New York right now, but he told me that he’d push me around the whole city. And he has. And whenever I feel particularly down, he tells me that he’s not going anywhere, and how happy he is that he married me. Not long ago I had a particularly rough period, and when I was at one of my lowest moments, he asked if we could renew our vows.”

 I guess that is what I am talking about with this verse. In the face of this couples undeniable hardship and suffering they have persevered… they haven’t given up… they have kept going! And the result is amazing character! So would this man and woman be the people they are today without the suffering they have gone through? Again, you wouldn’t wish this upon anyone… but it is a part of this life we live and it can lead to incredible perseverance and character.

The final thing then is that it leads to hope. You see as we wait patiently we develop hope for the future and we get in those hardest of times to experience the love of God. It is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit…

So if you want to grow, if you want to experience God… it most likely will come from enduring great trials and tests in life!

7 years on from being asked that question, I would still say that compared to a lot of people, I have been able to enjoy relative peace and blessing! But the two hardest episodes in my life have also led to the most personal growth and development of my faith! One was a very difficult time at the end of my last church role and the other was my wife’s stroke last year. Thankfully she recovered fully, but in those moments when it looked like she would have permanent brain damage, it was the scariest moments of my life. Would we wish for Victoria to have another stroke or something similar to happen? No! But, I tell you what, faith became real, verses that I had read came alive, depending on God and praying fervently became natural. My love for her and our family grew stronger and I am sure it built a capacity and perseverance in me that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And finally, it did lead to hope, hope of that time to come when every sickness will be healed by God and every painful experience taken away!

So what about you? What is the hardest thing or things that you have ever gone through? And what has it led to in your life?

Let me finish with Philippians 3:10-11 – one of my favourite verses – sums up the Christian life…

Paul says; “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

He says he wants to know Christ. My guess is because Jesus is his Lord, his saviour, his good shepherd, his rock and salvation. So he wants to know Christ! And part of that is the power of his resurrection. And who wouldn’t, that is the explosion of new life and power to overcome evil and sickness and death! But it only comes if you have participated in his sufferings. You see there is no resurrection without the cross, there is not testimony without the struggle, there is no victory without the battle. I know many of us are in deep battles right now! May you know Christ… his sufferings, his resurrection… his death and his life!

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