Why Is Life So Difficult? (The Path to Joy Is Hard) by Ricky Echeona

At Gateway Church in Austin, we continued our series called Why Is Life So Difficult?

In life, we all naturally want to avoid pain and discomfort in exchange for comfort, pleasure, and success. But what if suffering didn’t have to be pointless? What if moments of pain could lead us right to the amazing joy we all crave?

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.

The Path to Joy Is Hard Next Steps

Message Audio from Ricky Echeona:

Message Video including the Story of John Monger:

The Path to Joy is Hard, Why is Life so Difficult? from Gateway Church on Vimeo.

Message Notes:

John Monger has become a good friend of ours at Gateway. We hosted a dinner for refugees, and heard that he was a Christian wanting to serve and help other refugees, so Gateway partnered with him for years to provide for these new refugees who came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. And you may not realize this, but through your regular giving, we have supported John for years so he could minister full time to refugees—not only has he and his team served 1000s of refugees, he has a church of nearly 300 Bhutanese and Nepalese following Christ…and John’s helped start over 100 churches for refugees across the United States.  And John will tell you, through all the suffering and pain and troubles he has endured, nothing compares to the joy he’s experienced following Jesus.

That’s what we’re talking about today, the path to Joy is hard.  But worth it!  We’ve been in the book of Peter, written to Christians across the Roman Empire, being persecuted—Nero lighted his gardens at night with Christian’s set on fire.  This set off a firestorm of persecution, so Peter writes to them to encourage them.  Even in the midst of pain and suffering in life, he reminds them that God is with them, and will use even these painful, difficult things for their good…

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 1:6-8.

But how? How can we experience an inexpressible  joy in the midst of troubles and difficulties?  We’re going to dive into this topic and this passage, but I’ll admit—there’s a mystery to how Joy comes through the difficulties, but I’ve experienced it a number of times.

When we get mad at God it is often because God does not seem to be doing His will our ways. And isn’t this the Human problem. It’s that “sin nature” we all inherit.  Our default pattern is drifting. We naturally ignore God most of the day. That’s why. Jesus taught us to pray:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10

God doesn’t force His will on earth—we must choose. And That’s what’s wrong with planet earth—most don’t choose God’s will most of the time. Our habit is to go through the day thinking about how to get “My will be done, on earth and in Heaven—and if not, I’m gonna get mad, frustrated, and upset with God.” That’s what was happening to me.

We’ve been talking about how that’s what’s wrong with this world. God’s given us all little kingdoms to rule (our bodies, our possessions, our areas of influence, or relationships), but they only work together in love when His Loving Kingdom rules over all our little kingdoms. When my will is first submitted to His will. But love doesn’t force, so God doesn’t force His will, He lets us show our love for Him by being willing to do His will. As we stay connected, listening for his will, willing to respond, what starts to grow up within us is the Life our Souls Crave.

God cares more about doing something IN us more than he does doing something THROUGH us. In God’s vocabulary the verb BE is so much more significant than DO. Because what we were meant to do is from an overflow of who we are. And True JOY comes from the work he does WITHIN us, not from WITHOUT.

But here’s the catch—

The Path to Joy is Hard

You have to push through and stay faithful to God through the difficulties—and then you receive it. It comes like a gift. And I’ve said it, but I’ve also heard so many Christ followers who have pushed through say the same thing: “I’d never wish that season on my worst enemy—but I’d do it again to get the Joy I’m experiencing on the backside.”  Why is it that way? Why is the Path to Joy Hard?

Jesus said:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10.

Some translations say “Abundant Life—full, overflowing Life. It’s what Jesus promised again his last night on earth saying:

“Remain in my love. 10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! John 15:9-11

I want that. We all want that– life overflowing, joy, love, the abundant life…sign me up! I want that. But notice Jesus said it only comes when you “abide in me” or “remain—stay connected to my love by doing my will.”  Many Christians want the Abundant life and Joy, but if you watched us, you’d notice that what we really pursue is comfort, pleasure, success and what we try to avoid like the plague is pain, discomfort, suffering or anything that would cause us to be shunned, looked down on, or persecuted.

Jesus said remain in my love.

In fact he says that word remain about 17 times in 2 chapters, other translations say abide. He’s constantly telling his disciples remain, remain, remain. WHY?  Because he knows our default wants to escape, escape, escape. So we do anything to avoid pain, mask it, numb it, pretend it isn’t there.

What if the issue isn’t that life keeps PULLING at you but the fact that maybe haven’t PUSHED through.

See avoiding difficulties (running, taking the easy path, numbing the pain) means avoiding Joy. Jesus says right after this in John 15:18

18 “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first… Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. 21 They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me.” John 15:18-21.

See we want Joy Inexpressible, but we run from all pain or persecution into the arms of comfort or convenience. But in a fallen world, going away from God, the only path to true joy (a joy that bad circumstances can’t take away)—this abundant life—is THROUGH pain and suffering, not AROUND it. Why would I say that.  Well… 

Pain is Unavoidable

Jesus said that same night after talking about Joy overflowing:

“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. John 16:33

Notice “will” have it. Not you “might” have it. So what’s your theology/philosophy of pain and trouble? If it’s inevitable, what’s it for, what good is it? And are you ready to make the most of it? Not that we want to invite pain or suffering, or cause it, but in a world that floats downstream away from God, it’s unavoidable, so we need to be ready to make the most of it.

Notice also, Jesus doesn’t say “I have overcome your pain.” If we’re honest, when Jesus says “In this world, you will have trouble.” The way we read that is more like “In this world, “ya” will have trouble—you all out there.” Like, “yeah, it just happens to people all over.”  But when it happens to me, well then suddenly God is guilty of malpractice. It’s not supposed to happen to ME—to Yall, yeah—not to me. When we’re actually in pain, these philosophical ponderings don’t matter, we just react.  And the reason we react and feel it’s a malpractice is we really aren’t ready to see it as opportunity.

Pain is Opportunity

There must be something good about pain if it’s unavoidable. The path to joy and abundant life in a fallen world has never come pain-free or not-difficult. Abundant life doesn’t’ mean an easier or less painful, it means a better, more Joy-filled, loving, peace-infused life, despite the troubles and pains. That must be what James, Jesus’ half brother, understood when he wrote this:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4.

Pure Joy? Sounds twisted. But it’s not that the trial is joy, or the pain or suffering is joy—James is saying the Joy is found in the opportunity to mature and lack nothing, and that produces in you a joy that nothing can take away—God’s joy in you.

Notice it’s the same thing Peter said in that first passage, Testing of your faith, a season of pain, or difficulty, develops perseverance.  That’s important, so that you can be mature, complete and lacking nothing.

I want that! That sounds like abundant life—full, complete, lacking nothing. That would mean full of joy, love, peace, whole—and nothing can be taken from you.  No bad circumstance or mean/evil person can take that from you. I want that! But what if there’s no way to have that unless you go through developing perseverance? And you can’t develop perseverance if you just avoid pain and suffering or take the easy way out of trials and difficulties. There’s no other way to gain perseverance than to go through a season you don’t like, but manage it well so it drives you toward God, the One Who produces this wholeness, completeness, lacking nothing in your soul.

I enjoy working out but it wasn’t always this way. It’s days, months, and years of what I call embracing the suck. Even with that I don’t always enjoy working out legs. Why? Because the incredible soreness that comes with it when trying to walk the next days after. Sometimes I work out legs and feel like I need a LIFE ALERT button. “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” I’m like Forrest Gump before the leg braces fell off. BUT what’s amazing is in that soreness I always think, this is good. Because that fatigue is proof positive that I’m getting stronger. My prayer for you today is that you would realize that when life tries to paralyze you and pin you down, you have the Spirit of God to rely on to keep on walking because JOY is on the other side. Understand that everything you’ve BEEN THROUGH is just a setup for your BREAKTHROUGH.

That’s where deep unrelenting joy comes from—it comes as a gift from God for those who persevere by faith. This is the secret—and why James says “Consider it an opportunity for joy—when trials and difficulties of life come.”  Don’t run, don’t medicate, don’t bail because it’s painful or difficult—remain in God’s love, doing His will, because this is the ONLY Path to the Joy and Love you really really want.

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.

I want that—I want inexpressible joy, and I want much praise and glory and honor. You do too—don’t lie—it’s what you live for. You want to be happy, you want to be celebrated, honored, recognized for the good you do, but we often settle for a lessor joy or glory or honor.

Just think of the greatest happiness of life so far. Got that in mind? Picture that perfect vacation with friends or family, or that moment with a spouse, or child, or maybe that huge win—a victory celebration.  Great joy.  Okay, what about Glory and Honor or Praise—when did you feel the most glory and honor or praise from parents or at work or people?  Now think about the greatest glory or honor in your wildest dreams—if you were Aladin and found the genie? What would you wish for? Rock star or Celebrity Fame? CEO honor? Presidential Glory? Parent of the Universe recognition and Praise? Picture it. Yet all the glory and honor and praise, and all the happiness of this world—it never lasts—does it? Once you get it, you’re soon looking for something else to fill you up.  But imagine glory, honor, praise that lasts—eternally.  Imagine a joy that doesn’t fade, but is permanent. What would that be worth?

Peter says it’s worth more than all the gold in the world:

These trials will show that your faith is genuine. [it’s easy to trust God when life’s easy—when life’s difficult, that’s when real trust is revealed] 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…. 1 Peter 1:7-8.

God promises that you are earning something worth more than all the money, glory and honor of earth. When you lean in and trust God when life is difficult, God sees, and He is a rewarder. He promises you are earning glory, honor, praise that will blow away all earth’s rewards–and it lasts!

So that’s why Pain is Unavoidable, Pain is Opportunity.

Pain also Forces a Choice       

Those in recovery understand the opportunity of pain. It’s well known that people have to hit their painful “rock bottom” in order to admit they have a problem and need God’s help.  But on the backside of recovery—so many former addicts find a Joy and Peace God gives that make them grateful for the pain—because it forced a choice.  The choice is this: To give up playing God, and let God be God—surrendering my will to doing His will only. That’s a paraphrase of Step 3.  Tim Keller describes the choice Pain Forces like this:

“Suffering can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God
and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”
– Tim Keller

Every single one of us—when we first feel pain, be it emotional pain, hurt, relational disappointment, injustice, criticism – our first thought is “I want relief—I want to make it stop or make it go away.” And what’s worse is that evil is not unaware of what pain can produce, if we use it to drive us like a nail deep into God’s love and trust.  So there are all kinds of ways to numb the pain, all types of anesthesia or escapes to avoid the pain: drinking, drugging, sex, tv, unhealthy relationships, facebook, even church—we can use all kinds of things to avoid facing down and stewarding our pain, or our disappointments.  If you consistently numb yourself or run from your pain, you make it impossible to grow through it.

The important thing is to ask, “What do I want this pain to turn into?” The first answer is usually uhh  “no pain.” But “no pain” is usually not an option or it’s a shortcut that just makes the pain come back worse. But God’s promise is this pain can turn into something good, something Joyful. But we must choose to endure—letting it drive us like a nail into God’s love.

Romans 8:28 says, “28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

We love the second half “works for the good of those who love him…” But notice it says ALL things. Which tells me, in order for him to work it out for GOOD there’s gotta be some BAD… and even some UGLY mixed in. But the end result is always GOOD.

Churchill led Britain through the hopeless 9 months of Blitzkreig—as England was being bombed night and day for months. Churchill said:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
– Churchill

When it gets hard, that’s when perseverance comes in—let it drive you like a nail into God’s love, into trust in God to give you the power and perseverance to do His will through it—keep Going. Don’t despair, don’t give up—Joy is coming, Reward is coming, this pain is going to turn into something good. This dark time is not a cave you’ll be in forever, it’s a dark tunnel and there is a light at the end, keep going toward the Light of God’s Joy.

So the choice pain gives you is to avoid, shortcut, numb out, do anything to not face it. Or we can let it drive us deep into the Love of God, and let him guide us to face down the pain or difficulty to trust God and learn and grow through it. That’s how we pass the test—we persevere in faith, or trust. Suffering doesn’t have to be pointless. When doing God’s will leads us into suffering, we can endure it as worship to God. No matter what the pain or suffering, when it’s offered to him, it can be transformed into a tool that forges character and strength in us, leading us to a life of solidity, blessing, and ultimately joy. He uses it to makes us into a stronger, more resilient, joy-filled people. Not a path that we would want to repeat, but one we wouldn’t trade for anything because of the Joy Inexpressible God gives as a gift on the backside to those who faith-fully endure.

Jesus was called the Suffering Servant by Isaiah, the Jewish Prophet, because he revealed the Heart of the Unseen God—a God that would suffer for us, being beaten and tortured and nailed to a cross—showing at once the kind of world we live in—an unjust, cruel world but also the kind of God He is–a God of sacrificial love and mercy. Over these weeks we’ve talked about how Jesus paid the price for our wrongs, our evil thoughts and actions, so that God could still be just in forgiving us.  He didn’t wink at evils and wrongs, He paid for them himself.  Why?  So that we don’t have to pay for them by staying separated from the Source of Love—He overcomes evil in us and through us by reconnecting us to Himself.

Hebrews 12:2 puts it this way, “let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Think about that—God went through shame, abuse, torture, death, the grave, to hell and back for the JOY set before him. And what was that JOY? It was you, it was me. It was the WAY that he made to be in relationship with us forever. He bankrupted Heaven so he wouldn’t have to spend eternity without you. But God won’t force your will or force You to admit you need God’s forgiveness and loving guidance.  But  all it takes, willingness (or faith), to be made right with God—adopted into his family forever.

Do you want that?  You can leave here today knowing that you are right with God for eternity. All it takes is a heart turning back to God saying “I want your forgiveness and leadership God—I want what Jesus did to count for me” – when we pray—tell him that.  And then I want to invite you to be baptized today after the service if you never have as an adult.  Jesus said:

“there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” John 15:7.

Maybe you’ve already made that recently, maybe your next step is Baptism- to go public with your faith in a community that will love and support you.

Maybe you’ve been following Jesus for a long time and you are in a really difficult time in your life.

There’s one thing I know for sure- we are all either leaving a hard season, in the middle of a hard season, or getting ready to enter into one. What is beautiful is that we serve a God that sees us and he’s still in control.

Some of you maybe you feel like you’re drowning. Can I just remind you or tell you for the first time, God walks on the things we drown in. He never leaves us or forsakes us and his JOY and PEACE are greater than the blows life may throw.

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