Why Is Life So Difficult? (We’re Not Home Yet)

At Gateway Church in Austin, we began a new series called Why Is Life So Difficult?

We are all guaranteed to have some difficulties in our lives. But despite the storms of life that inevitably come our way, there’s a way through them that can make us overcomers too. How could shifting our perspective change how we perceive our trials? Work through the following questions and Scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Next Steps:

Work through the following questions and Scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

We’re Not Home Yet Next Steps

Message Video:

Why Is Life So Difficult – We’re Not Home Yet from Gateway Church on Vimeo.

Message Notes:

Today we’re starting a very important series, ‘Why is Life So Difficult?”  In our Q&A service, the most asked question was about pain and suffering and the difficulties of life—so we’re going to spend a series on it because there’s nothing more important for spiritual growth. Why? Well, 2 reasons, one’s good news, one’s bad news.

Good News and Bad News

Two base-ball loving friends decide that whichever dies first will come back and tell the other if there’s baseball in heaven. The first one to die contacts his friend and says, “Good news, there’s baseball in heaven.  Bad news, you’re pitching Friday.”

When people tell you I’ve got some Good News and Bad news – which do you usually want first?

I want the Bad News first–gives me something to look forward to.  I’m speaking, so you’re getting the Bad News first:  Ready – The Bad News is—Life is Difficult–It’s a guarantee!

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble…” John 16:33

If you haven’t had to go through trials, or heartache or pain or loss—just wait!  It happens to just about everyone at some point-it’s the nature of living in this fallen world. That’s the bad news about this series…

But there’s Good News too. Jesus also said:

33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33″

Despite the Storms of Life that inevitably come our way…there’s a way through them that can make us overcomers too.  In fact, when people are asked the question “When did you grow the most as a person?”  What were the most character-shaping events of your life?” Almost everyone points to some difficult period in life…during a trial or hardship or painful situation.”  Studies of character formation show, it’s in painful, difficult situations that we grow most—if we so choose.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about that because I’m very interested in helping people grow Spiritually.  And what I’ve realized is that we’ve been going at it all wrong.  I thought that if we could motivate people to seek God, and pray, and to read scripture and get in community with others, serve their neighbor—you would grow.  But studies show, what provides the best odds of spiritual growth is pain.

And obviously that’s the dilemma—you can’t program pain or suffering—you can’t program this kind of growth.  But we can be prepared to take advantage of it, and that’s what I want to do in this series. The same sun that softens wax also hardens clay—The same trials and sufferings that harden one heart will soften another, they’ll produce bitterness and hatred in one life, yet compassionate, joyful, loving character in another—It has to do with one simple question:

Will it just take from me, or will I take from it?

Many of you here today are facing trials and troubles of varying degrees.

  • Some are in the trials of job loss, some in financial troubles, some are dealing with marital or relational struggles.
  • Some of you are just so stressed out from red-lining each day, your engine is about to crack it’s block.
  • Some of you are dealing with things totally out of your control—horrible things, suffering or death of a loved one, injustices, lies, things you didn’t do and don’t deserve.

And usually the question we get stuck on, like a bad song stuck on replay—is

  • “Why?”
  • “Why me?”
  • “Why is this happening to me?”
  • “Why is God doing this or letting this happen?”

And we’ll spend a little time on that question, it is important, but this series is about a more important question to ask when Life is Difficult: “How?” How will I take from this—not just let it take from me?”  That will depend on whether you are mentally prepared when Life’s Difficulties come.

Context of 1 Peter

We’re going to look at the book of 1 Peter and other scriptures during this series.

  • Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples and spiritual running partners (1of 3 guys Jesus let into his most painful, vulnerable moments).
  • Peter understood suffering—he had watched Jesus endure it.
  • Peter led Jesus’ church during the most intense persecution and suffering.
  • He had been beaten and jailed and threatened, then later in life Nero, the Roman emperor blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. Nero would coat Christians in black tar, run them through with stakes, and light them on fire as human torches to light his gardens.
  • Greater persecution of Christians swept the Roman empire.

So Peter writes Christians throughout the Roman empire who are suffering, to encourage them:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. 13 Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering…. 1 Peter 4:12-13

Sounds a little twisted, doesn’t it? But it only sounds twisted because we don’t understand the story we’re in.

A Perspective Shift

You’ll never understand Why Life is so Difficult If you don’t understand the plot of the story you’re in, you’ll constantly be confused about what’s happening to you.

I remember the first time I watched Inception—it was on TV and I’d missed about 25% but it hooked me in and I watched—and I got so confused because I couldn’t figure out what was happening to the main character. That’s because I missed the opening plotline—all the action was happening inside another person’s mind, not in real life. When I went back and watched from the beginning, it became a favorite movie.

See, we’ve grown up learning that this is My Story, it’s about me, and I’ve invited God into my story…but that perspective will forever keep you stuck asking “Why me?”  When we think the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure and comfort and minimize pain.  When we wrongly think that this life is supposed to be heaven, having a normal life means things pretty much go my way, and people pretty much do right (which means do what I expect!). I’m entitled to a comfortable 70 years or so on planet earth. That’s the story.  Friends, if you think that’s what life is about, you’re in for a lot of frustration and anguish, and deep disappointment with God. And trials and difficulties will take more from you than you take from them. This is not Your Story you’ve invited God into, this is God’s Story, and you’ve been invited into God’s Story.

That’s why Peter begins with a Perspective Shift:

 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again [adopted into God’s story], because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation… So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. 1 Peter 1:3-8 NLT

Why? Why me?  The answer is “Because this is not your home. You’re not home yet.” And God wants you to live in His Story

with great expectation[that] we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you… beyond the reach of change and decay” 1 Peter 1:3-4

How does this help answer the “Why?” question? Because this life is not your home. When we think this life is supposed to be home, we get confused about the plot of the story we’re in.  Scripture tells us Heaven is home, this Life is a painful birth canal through which eternal loving Creatures are born into Real Life—where people are made ready for Home.

Life Is Birth Canal

In our Q&A, I said “earth is a birth canal” but didn’t explain it.

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan…we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children.- Romans 8:19-23

See, this earth is a birth canal [it’s painful and difficult] but just like childbirth, it’s producing new life—the greatest joy possible. This Romans passage doesn’t say God cursed humanity, God cursed the creation with death and decay—the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics—everything rots, rusts, decays, breaks, gets diseased—life is groaning, and we groan, but God’s got a bigger story in mind. That’s the only perspective I’ve found that makes sense of Why Suffering? And why suffering isn’t okay with us.

When my dad was dying, at first I cursed God, said “I want nothing to do with you if you even exist. How can you love me and let me suffer like this?” But then I realized, if there is no God, there’s no meaning to any of life’s suffering—nothing good will ever come of this. It’s meaningless.

But then why do we complain?

If life’s an accident with no grand story of God, and suffering and pain have always been. So why are humans so poorly adapted to it. I knew the evolutionary arguments—survival of fittest—but insects don’t have intense pain receptors like us, they’ve survived just fine. And the greatest pain is emotional and relational, and you don’t see despairing, suicidal cockroaches (too bad, huh).  The very fact that we desire liberation from pain and suffering tells us something about the story we’re in.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy,
the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis

And that’s Why God allows pain and suffering for a time. Because unfortunately, when self-willed creatures feel like life’s going their way, they continue to ignore or reject God thinking:

“I don’t need God—I’m God. My will be done.” But that’s the root of all we hate in this world.

Don’t think God doesn’t care about our suffering. God suffers with us. Jesus was called the Suffering Servant—God entered into our suffering to deliver us from it! On the cross, God took evil on himself so that he could destroy evil without destroying the people he loves.

This world is a birth canal–the painful place where free-willed people get squeezed and pushed and hopefully delivered into life eternal. That’s what God’s up to. That’s what Jesus himself went through: And only when you embrace that expectation of life will you Be Ready to grow through your difficulties. Life is not a resort, it’s a birth canal.

So does that mean God causes the pains and evils and suffering of this world? NO! And this is very important so that you don’t let pain and suffering cause you to abandon God’s team and join with evil accidently.  That passage in Peter says,

God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation… So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. 1 Peter 1:5-6

Joy is what God will produce in you as you lean into him through the trials. I’ve experienced it, many here have experienced it. It’s an inexpressible joy.

In Christ, God is protecting you from evil.

God is protecting you from things you can’t see or understand. God can’t do evil.

Evil is anything done against God’s will and ways.

Free-Willed Creatures Choosing To Obey God

The context of the story we’re in is a world where God allows evil for a short time. Why? Because God is creating eternal, loving, free-willed creatures who will forever choose to love and obey God. Love requires free will. You can’t force true love.

Imagine a proposal at gunpoint “Marry me.” Forced love is no love at all. You can’t buy love either. I can shower a person with gifts, and they may love the gifts, but not love me.

So real love is risky. God can’t force or buy your love, and people truly can reject God’s love. And that’s the story we are in. We humans start in the knowledge of Good and Evil, where God does not force His will. As a result, all of us seek “my will be done,” more than “God’s will be done.”  We live in a world at war—will against will. So Jesus taught us to pray “Father in Heaven, your will be done on earth as in Heaven.” Which means God’s will is NOT done on earth. God’s not doing these horrible things to you, God’s suffering with us because God loves us, and He suffers to deliver us through it to something better.

God gave me an epiphany years ago, when my 5 year old daughter, Ashley, fell from 8ft head first onto tile and cracked her skull. I’ve never felt pain like watching her pain. They had to inject her with dye to do an MRI, and she cried out “Daddy—they’re hurting me, help me, stop them daddy.” It was brutal. But the MRI was necessary because it showed bleeding under the skull. Which if not relieved, would pressure up and kill my daughter. The next day, they had to do a followup MRI and as they went to inject her with dye, Ashley was crying, screaming, kicking—the Doctor looked at me and said “Dad, you’re gonna have to hold her down.”  I had to pin my daughter down as she looked into my eyes, pleading, “Daddy, they’re hurting me, why are you doing this to me?”  She’s crying, I’m crying worse. I’ve never suffered such pain. I went through it with her because I love her…and I knew something she didn’t—this temporary suffering is necessary so she could live, and have a loving, joyful future.

God goes through your suffering in the same way

In all their suffering [God] also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years. Isaiah 63:9.

So when I get stuck asking the “Why God?” question. I switch to the How God question.

How do I grow through this? How do I take more from this than it takes from me?

Two Types of Trials

First, to grow from it, you need to realize there are two types of trials. We grow through each differently.

Henry Cloud gives a good illustration of different types of trials:

“If you walked out of here today and a guy with a mask walked up to you, took out a knife, stabbed you in the stomach, left you unconscious, and took all your money and ran—that would be a terrible thing.  You’d call him a Mugger – and have him arrested and jailed.  But if you left here and walked into a room at Seton Hospital, where a guy came in wearing a mask, stabbed you in the stomach with a knife, left you unconscious, and also took all your money and ran.  You’d call him a Doctor and thank him.”

In the same way, there’s Evil Suffering (destructive suffering at the hands of evil people or disease from a broken world. And there’s Surgical Suffering (pain telling us we need surgery).  Too often, in churches, those who have been “mugged by life” who need comfort and support have been told that God is trying to teach them a lesson, or they’re suffering cause they sinned. The book of Job reminds us, faithful people who have done no wrong suffer too. On the other side, sometimes we treat those who keep hurting themselves as victims, when they need…

Surgical Suffering

Leprosy is a horrible disease that causes its victims to feel no pain, as a result, they keep destroying their own bodies without knowing it.

Pain that warns us when we’re destroying ourselves is good.

Surgical Suffering comes from our shortcomings, sinful patterns, addictive behavior, chains from our past. Surgical suffering is pain we bring on ourselves. Though we might not see it.

Some people just keep on getting taken because they go after get rich quick promises.
Some people just keep drinking or drugging with bad company and wonder why so much pain.
Some feel financial pain, but keep living above their means.

So the first question when we face pain, “Is this a Wakeup Call?”
“Did I do something that directly caused this pain?”

If so–Stop blaming, running and avoiding. Let God grow you up by facing the pain.

Ask God for wisdom: “How can I grow through this?”

Ask him to show you the truth about why you keep repeating this painful trial.  Maybe it’s some coping mechanism that worked to protect you as a child, but now is hurting you.  Maybe it’s a wrong view of life, or relationships, or yourself or God.  Ask God for wisdom, seek it wholeheartedly and He will give it to you.

Walk toward the pain trusting God

Instead of trying to Manage or Control your way through the pain so you come out looking pretty—trust God to deliver you.  We keep in cycles of pain when we try to manage our image, prop up our insecurity, try harder to succeed—Anything to not feel hurt, feel pain, feel humbled, feel weak—but feel it with God and trust God to grow you strong inside.

And then Surround yourself with trusted, honest friends.

2-3 Spiritual running partners in your Life Group or Serve Network you can be honest with is how God heals us.  Don’t let Surgical Suffering just take from you, you take from it.

Evil Suffering

Suffering that we don’t bring on ourselves—others wrong us, or pain or disease come with no direct correlation to our actions.

Here, Jesus is our example:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.   So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God.  There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it…So even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.”  Hebrews 4:15, 5:8 

When Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble” he was speaking from experience. Jesus never sinned, he never experienced Surgical Pain—yet He suffered more than most of us ever will—betrayal, false accusation, friends forsaking him, torture, death. He learned how to follow God the Father’s will as a human—that’s how we overcome Evil Suffering. We will dive into that more next week, but Let me forecast it with my own story.

For 8 years, I watched my mom slowly die of Alzheimer’s. At first, I got stuck in the “Why God? Why me? Why her?” questions. Then I switched to “How?” “How do I do Your will through this?” And asking that question, I felt like God said, “She loved and served you when you were helpless—you love and serve her in her helplessness.” I started to realize, because of God’s bigger story—how we go through this matters, it counts, every unseen act of patience, love, kindness matters to God—that’s the Grand Story of Eternity. Love is the story. That shifted my perspective.

Alzheimers is brutal—it’s evil—not of God, and ultimately God will do away with it forever. But in the Evil Suffering as I asked “How God? How do I do your will?” He taught me patience and letting go, and obedience to love and serve in His power, even when it hurts.  And I did take more from it than it took from me.

And at the end of my mom’s life, my sister and I were in the room, reading out loud to her the manuscript of Imagine Heaven. The conclusion of 30 years of studying over 1000 people who clinically died and peaked into eternity. And reading what Heaven put the difficulties of earth in perspective. And the last chapter of Imagine Heaven I read to her are from the last chapter of the Bible:

“Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people…and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” Revelation 21:3-4

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