Life hurts. Or at least it does sometimes. If we’re honest, it hurts more often than most of us hear in church.
Following Jesus is hard work. It is, in some sense, a way of pain.
If you’re feeling that right now, the incomparable cuts of choosing to give up your rights again and again, the painful stabs of making choices that are Godly but make your life infinitely harder than if you had chosen otherwise—if you’re feeling that then you need to know that you aren’t an aberration. You aren’t crazy. You aren’t the bargain bin Christian that somehow snuck in. You aren’t doing less well than everyone else. This is the way. Abandon all self-reliance ye who enter here.
To be a Christian is to share in Christ’s suffering and to count it a privilege.
Which could sound awfully maudlin if we gave in to self-pity. Self-pity is about the least attractive character trait humans can develop and tends to find its source in comparison. Experiencing pain is normal, telling yourself that your pain is worse, or engaging in the ultimate pitying act: deciding that God doesn’t love you because of your pain—is deciding that because your leg hurts, you’ll stab yourself in the eye.
Comparing pain has always felt like an impossible thing to do, until I realised that psychologists actually come up with tools to allow that to done diagnostically. Which means that I’d be happy to bet that my scars are bigger than yours—assuming you also live in the post-industrialised ‘west’. I’d lose plenty of those bets, but on balance I reckon I’d come out ahead.
Which I tell you to suggest that I have some authority to say that self-pity doesn’t get you anywhere. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Even on those occasions when people who really ought to know better don’t recognise the sheer weight of the scars you bear, and you feel like you must delve into the pools of pity to shake them out of their repose—it still isn’t worth it.
Having received what seemed like the worst news I’d had in my life, I remember sobbing myself to sleep the next night. I tried to pray. All I could get out was “come quickly Lord Jesus” through choked sobs. I wanted to pray for what was going on, but the currency I needed was hope and I was flat broke. All I could do was ask Jesus to come back, wrap it all up and finally end the pain.
Which he hasn’t done yet. But he will. This is its own sort of hope, the deepest kind. Hope that tears out of your breast in anguish, that can’t see a resolution, that knows that this world is wrong and dying. Hope that knows resolution will come, that pain will end and that one glorious day everything sad will come untrue.
It sounds like wishful thinking, but anything else will force you to give in to despair. This is the promise that one day the sun will come out. Maybe it will be tomorrow, or the next day. Dream of feeling warmth on your face. When I’m at my lowest, this gives me the strength to get up again, and keep on walking.
Despair is deadly. It wallows like a pig in muck, delighting in how filthy it can find itself. When your hope is gone, when you’re broke and broken, it feels like the only option. After all, where else can you go? What else can you do? There’s nothing for it but to stop fighting, face the brutish unfeeling face of reality and give up.
Dear friend, don’t.
And I write this to my own soul as much as yours—but don’t. Don’t back down. Don’t give up. Be the kind of hero who chooses to get up again, despite being kicked in the dirt—real heroes aren’t heroes because they win but because they get back up.
How on earth can we do it? I don’t have the strength of character to just get back up. How can I do it? With hope, and the power of the Spirit, by looking forwards.
There comes a point in the Christian life when you brush the sugar-coating off your Bible. I pray it comes early, it makes things easier. That moment or series of moments when you realise that the faith is not supposed to make your life easier or more comfortable, and that the Bible never promised it would. We have chosen to follow the dying and rising God in his end times death cult—he promises that we will walk through death into the bright sunshine of a new day. But we do have to take up our crosses to follow him (Matthew 16).
It turns out following Jesus isn’t a cakewalk. He bids us to come and die. It’s an adventure, but the kind with bears.
Here’s the thing, I’m still more loved than I can know, receive endless grace for my mistakes and experience mercy entirely undeserved. The rough and tumble nature of scrabbling along the path after Jesus hasn’t dimmed the light of grace and mercy, instead they’re all I have left.
We learn the shape of hope on the journey. We are simply asked to follow. Sometimes he leads us through valleys of deep darkness—but his rod and staff will comfort us when he does.
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